Largely unchecked, tutors got millions through Texas education program

Posted Monday, Oct. 07, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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In late September, a lesser-known No Child Left Behind program that set aside millions in federal funding to provide remedial help for struggling students from low-income families quietly came to a close in Texas.

During a news conference to announce that the state had been granted a general waiver from the 2001 federal education law, Education Commissioner Michael Williams cast the change as one of many that would give districts more authority over their underperforming schools. But his comments signaled more than a shift in policy. The state had also, intentionally or not, struck a blow against a once-bustling and virtually unchecked for-profit industry.

A Texas Tribune investigation has uncovered years of inaction by state officials while money flowed to tutoring companies, delivering few academic results and flouting state law. As companies racked up complaints — and school districts spent further resources investigating them — the state agency responsible for administering the program repeatedly claimed it had no authority to intervene.

“I look at it as an incredible opportunity that has been missed for our students,” said Jon Dahlander, a spokesman for the Dallas school district, which has spent $18 million on tutoring since 2009. “It’s unfortunate all the way around.”

A provision in the federal education law requires low-performing schools to set aside 20 percent of the -federal funding they receive for economically disadvantaged students to pay for “supplemental education services,” or tutoring, in middle and high school. In the last six years, Texas school districts have spent $180 million on such services, primarily from private providers.

As the academic standards that schools had to meet under federal law ratcheted higher each year, the number of schools required to set aside money for tutoring grew — and so did their troubles with the private companies providing the services.

As early as 2009, school administrators began reporting claims of falsified invoices, overly aggressive student recruitment and questionable instruction methods. They doubted the academic benefit of such programs — something internal agency evaluations had already suggested and would soon confirm. They detailed the use of iPads, phones and laptops as incentives for students to enroll in the services. They described instances of company representatives paying students and teachers to recruit for their programs and showing up without permission — or without criminal history background checks — on school property. One East Texas principal expressed alarm that the owner of a tutoring company working on campus was also listed on an adult entertainment website.

But companies vigorously defended their practices, sometimes even filing complaints with the agency themselves. They said their gifts to students were “learning tools” permitted under the law, and they blamed school districts’ lack of communication if they failed to comply with state procedure. On several occasions, they said complaints reflected the actions of individual employees, not companywide issues.

Four years and more than 75 formal complaints later, the Texas Education Agency finally moved to bar some of the most egregious offenders — including two companies operating with fake tax identification numbers and one that did not certify that its employees had passed criminal background checks — from the list of approved providers, which until 2012 included a company using Scientology-based instruction.

Sally Partridge, the director of the TEA’s School Improvement and Support Division, said the agency re-evaluated its approach after a “collection of data points” indicated there was a trend in complaints from both providers and districts.

Because the federal program was set up with the state as a monitor and the districts as contractors, she said, it led to “difficulty in who should respond to such things as complaints.”

The program was intended to give low-income parents equal opportunity to acquire private tutoring services for their children. School districts were given little control over which companies the parents selected — the companies only had to be on the state list.

Keeping track of the program at the district level was “a nightmare,” said Ron Cavazos, director of federal programs for the Edinburg school district in the Rio Grande Valley.

“The only thing the state said was that all those providers that are willing to provide services to your school have to be given that opportunity,” he said.

In 2011, the Edinburg district asked the TEA to investigate one of the state’s largest tutoring providers. It detailed a number of issues, including lacking evidence that certified teachers conducted tutoring sessions or that instructional materials aligned with state standards or students’ academic needs. It said interviews with students had indicated they were told they would be able to keep a company-provided laptop and phone regardless of whether they completed their tutoring sessions.

The TEA referred the complaint back for resolution at the local level, saying the district had failed to give the tutoring company a chance to respond.

The Houston school district, the state’s largest, filed 13 complaints in 2010. It relayed concerns about questionable invoices, company representatives signing up students on the hood of their cars in front of the school and arriving on campus without notice — and an incident in which one company’s employee used a racial slur to address a representative of a rival company. Twelve of the complaints received the same response: There was insufficient evidence to proceed.

The TEA found that the district substantiated its claims in one instance, in which a school administrator described repeated phone calls from parents asking to enroll their students in a tutoring program so they could receive a free computer. It asked the company to revise its parent outreach policies for the upcoming school year.

When an annual audit revealed discrepancies in the invoices of a few tutoring providers in the Dallas district, it prompted a district-level investigation of all tutoring companies that billed for services in the 2010-11 year.

The district identified potential issues with the invoices of 12 providers, including forms filled out in the same handwriting and misspelled names in student signatures. In all, $143,000 had gone to services that investigators said had not taken place. Later on, it found $500,000 more in falsely billed services.

The district began refusing to pay the companies, prompting a lawsuit from one. It also received a strongly worded letter from the TEA threatening to withhold the district’s federal funding if it did not continue providing tutoring services.

Jordan Roberts, director of the district’s office of grant compliance, said the district still has not recouped any of the money it claims it is owed by fraudulent providers.

“Most of these companies, when we go after them, they dissolve,” he said.

Asked whether the TEA felt confident that only high-quality tutoring companies were allowed onto the state list, the TEA’s Partridge said she could speak to only the last two years, when she arrived at the agency.

“I think we’d made some significant changes, in the last application cycle, looking at evidence of effectiveness, and asking applicants to provide us with a baseline and goals for the year,” she said. “But we had only one full cycle of applications under that process.”

Texas Tribune writer Jody Serrano contributed research to this report.

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