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Faking The Grade

After Misuse, a Push to Preserve Tutor Program

As No Child Left Behind awaits congressional reauthorization, the tutoring industry is energetically pushing federal policymakers to preserve public funding for tutoring. This is the fourth story in a series on the program.

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Faking The Grade

Faking the Grade is a four-part investigative series on how Texas spent millions of federal dollars on private tutoring for the state's poorest students under a No Child Left Behind policy — and has little to show for it. More in this series 

A decade after it became law as a part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, a tutoring program heralded as an academic safety net for children from low-income families in struggling schools has earned few champions — and lost many supporters.

“It was an unmitigated disaster,” said Michael Petrilli, a former Bush administration official who helped develop and promote the initiative during his four years in the federal Education Department. “It was a poorly thought-through policy, and I think it has run its course and should be allowed to die.”

Under the No Child Left Behind tutoring program, underperforming schools had to set aside a portion of the federal financing they received for economically disadvantaged students to get outside tutoring. In Texas, with minimal quality control at the state level, it resulted in millions of dollars in public money going to companies that at best showed little evidence of their services’ academic benefit, and at worst committed outright fraud.

The program has been suspended in Texas, as the state secured a waiver from the federal law’s requirements last month. Education officials have said that, for now, there are no plans to continue the program at the state level.

But as No Child Left Behind awaits Congressional reauthorization, the tutoring industry is energetically pushing federal policy makers to preserve public funding for tutoring, either in the updated law or other legislation — lobbying efforts expected to be duplicated at the state level in Texas, where over the years tutoring companies have cultivated powerful political ties.

“I have no doubt that the next legislative session, they will lobby for this way of spending dollars to be decided in Austin instead of the neighborhood school level, and I think that would be a real disservice,” said state Rep. Mike Villarreal, a San Antonio Democrat who passed legislation during the 2013 session tightening regulations on the federal tutoring program.

The law resulted in a booming industry that created an unprecedented role for commercial tutoring companies in public education. At the time, the program’s proponents said such private-sector involvement would fuel innovation in public schools while offering top-notch instruction to students who needed it.

Instead, it flopped, bringing years of complaints from school districts, which detailed practices like the use of incentives like iPads to recruit students into programs as well as significant concerns about instructional methods and falsified invoices.

After announcing the approval of the waiver, Michael Williams, the state’s education commissioner, said that although the state had proposed interventions for its lowest-performing schools in its application, when it came to tutoring, it intended to give the authority back to school districts.

The state’s decision has attracted criticism from Tutor Our Children, an industry-backed lobbying group that is pushing to include a version of the tutoring mandate when Congress takes up the law’s reauthorization.

Texas has taken a “shortsighted, irresponsible approach,” Stephanie Monroe, a former assistant secretary for education in the United States Office for Civil Rights, wrote in a letter to the editor published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in response to The Texas Tribune’s series on the program.

Without the tutoring program, Monroe said, the state’s poorest students will “no longer have access to the services they need to succeed and otherwise are unable to afford.”

She said her organization acknowledges that stronger oversight of tutoring services is needed. But Monroe, who left her government post in 2009 to found a lobbying firm, added that “allowing states like Texas to arbitrarily eliminate them altogether due to a few bad actors is just reckless public policy.”

Tutor Our Children, which describes itself as a group dedicated to preserving free tutoring for economically disadvantaged students, has spent almost $900,000 in federal lobbying expenses, including on contracts with Monroe, since it began in 2010. An additional $500,000 has gone to marketing, public relations and fund-raising costs, according to the organization’s tax filings.

In Texas, the tutoring industry has also pushed for political influence. During the legislative session, Villarreal said, tutoring companies either tried to block his bill or attempted to use it as a vehicle to ensure the program was preserved as a state-level grant if the state obtained a No Child Left Behind waiver.

Emails to Gov. Rick Perry’s office, obtained by the Tribune through an open records request, indicated that lobbyists hired by the largest tutoring provider in the state, Tutors with Computers, pushed for such a requirement. According to correspondence with the governor’s staff, their efforts failed when state education officials questioned whether the state had the authority to hold back federal money from districts — and pointed out the administrative burden of such an endeavor.

In the last two years, the company has spent an estimated minimum of $240,000 on lobbying teams in Austin and Washington. The company’s founder, Charles Young, has given more than $140,000 in political contributions to state Republican lawmakers, including $20,000 to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and $26,000 to Perry.

Young also served on a 2013 Texas Education Agency advisory committee that developed recommendations for the state’s school accountability system — a panel that also included Sandy Kress, a former Bush education adviser who has lobbied for Tutors with Computers. The company’s own advisory board has included Rod Paige, the former U.S. secretary of education and Houston Independent School District superintendent, who helped put No Child Left Behind into place.

Vince Cordero, the chief executive of Tutors with Computers, responded to questions by email, saying that he supported the creation of a state tutoring program with changes that allowed schools more control over which providers served their campuses and that required payment only if students’ performance improved.

Paige, who no longer serves on the company’s board, said he would also support such a program in Texas.

“It’s pretty clear that many low-income students really need the kind of tutorial service that’s available to more upscale, high-economic-value students,” he said in a phone interview.

While Petrilli, who is now the executive vice president of the Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, said he believed that commercial tutoring companies could provide useful services to public schools, he remained convinced that “no amount of tweaking” could save the program set out in No Child Left Behind.

School districts should have the flexibility to use their federal financing as they see fit, he said.

“I understand that certainly the providers want it spent on tutoring and some of the parents want it spent on tutoring,” he said. “But I think probably the best solution is to leave this to be a local decision.”

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