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Philadelphia Schools Challenged on Tutoring: Two Firms Asking U. S. Department of Ed to Declare District's System Illegal

The U.S. Department of Education will hear complaints from two private tutoring providers over the way the Philadelphia School District spends $20 million in federal funds.

Action Reading & Math Inc. in Center City and A+ Tutoring Service Inc. of Jenkintown are appealing the Pennsylvania Department of Education's approval of the district's methods.

At issue is the way the district provides what are known as "supplemental education services" to students at low-performing schools. The federal No Child Left Behind law requires districts to use 15 percent of their federal Title 1 funds for tutoring.

The two providers allege that Philadelphia is not giving state-approved, private tutoring programs an equal opportunity to provide services to qualified students. They say the district is steering students to its own program instead.

"The reality of it is: I am not in it for the money," said Leon Williams, a lawyer who operates Action Reading. "What I'm in it for is that the policy of the No Child Left Behind act was to give parents additional options and choices, and those additional options were meant to be private tutoring providers."

Paul Vallas, chief executive officer of Philadelphia schools, said the district's methods comply with federal law and allow more students to receive help after school. He said yesterday that the private tutoring companies received about $5 million to work with city children in the school year that ended in June.

In its complaint, Action Reading says the district is violating federal law by using its intermediate unit for tutoring. It is appealing the state Education Department's decision to approve the district's plan to have tutoring by the intermediate unit, which usually provides special-education services.

According to the district, state-approved private tutoring companies charge the district $1,815 per student for 36 to 40 hours of tutoring. The district's extended-day program, which uses curriculum developed by state-approved providers, costs $300 per student for 160 hours of help.

Federal law prohibits the school district from providing the after-school services itself because of its overall low academic performance under the No Child Left Behind law.

"This was done with the intent of us fully implementing the [supplemental educational services] as set down by the federal No Child Left Behind law in the most cost-effective way," Vallas said.

Williams of Action Reading & Math is challenging the district's use of the intermediate unit, contending that it is not a separate entity from the school district. In Philadelphia, the School Reform Commission oversees both the school district and the intermediate unit.

"The biggest complaint is the district has a clear conflict of interest," he said.

In his appeal, Daniel Ascher, president of A+ Tutoring, said the district made it difficult for state-approved tutors to participate in the program last year. His firm was shut out, he said, because it did not get information in time to meet the deadline set by the district.

"Unfortunately, I don't think that the process was particularly fair," said Ascher, whose company had expected to help 65 children in a Latino neighborhood in North Philadelphia.

The U.S. Department of Education has given Pennsylvania Education Secretary Vicki L. Phillips until July 28 to submit documents explaining the state's decisions.

Brian Christopher, a spokesman for the state Education Department, said the department did not want to comment until after the federal department's decision.

— Martha Woodall
Philadelphia Inquirer


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