Tutoring companies, many of which meet high standards and offer quality instruction, say they provide a needed service. But researchers disagree over whether government-funded tutoring is worth the money. Studies are inconclusive or contradictory.
The debate often takes on political undertones, with Republicans in favor of subsidized tutoring known in education jargon as supplemental educational services and Democrats against it.
In May, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan weighed in, telling a group of Florida businesspeople that, when it comes to subsidized tutoring firms, there never has been accountability for results.
A new industry
The George W. Bush administration kicked off a gold rush in 2001 when, as part of its landmark education reform, No Child Left Behind, it required states to spend hundreds of millions of federal dollars on private tutoring for poor children.
The law adopted with bipartisan support forced districts to hire tutors at high-poverty schools that failed to improve test scores two years in a row.
To pay for it, districts were to tap Title I money, federal funds set aside for elevating impoverished kids.
A new industry was born.
Hundreds of companies were formed in Florida alone. The bulk of them were for-profit. Each year more companies lined up, lured by the promise of per-child fees that averaged about $60 an hour. With so much money at stake, providers have offered children bicycles, laptops and other prizes for signing up. They have followed kids from bus stops and mobbed parents in school parking lots.
In Miami-Dade County, a company sent a high schools administrators on a four-day golf outing while seeking to lease more tutoring space from the administrators, a district investigation found.
Ive had a provider tell me that they see children as individual income increments, said Peggy Hildebrand, whose office oversees tutoring contracts in Volusia County schools. I had another provider tell me that NCLB stands for No Cash Left Behind.
A Times analysis of district billing data the first of its kind in Florida showed that 20 companies earned $1 million or more last year.
The top five earners collected a combined $20 million. The No. 1 tutoring business founded by an Orlando businessman who formerly worked in sales and marketing for Miller Brewing Co. collected more than $6 million.
Although federal law gave Florida power to regulate tutoring companies, it didnt hold owners and employees of the companies to the same high standards as teachers. Tutors hired by private firms dont need a college degree. Some companies recruit through Craigslist.
And though instructors must pass criminal background checks to work with children, the state requires no screening for owners and operators of tutoring companies. As a result, the industry remains open to people like Axson.
Axson was running a day care in Orlando in 1999 when she put a 13-year-old girl in charge of three babies at once. A crockpot of hot water spilled on an infant boy, badly burning him, and Axson tried to cover it up, according to the state attorneys office.
Prosecutors charged her with felony child neglect and her mother, Beulah Wiggins, with a misdemeanor child labor law violation. The case against Wiggins was dismissed, but Axson pleaded no contest in 2001. A judge withheld a formal finding of guilt and sentenced Axson to 10 years probation, during which she was banned from working with children and even from babysitting.