More than a decade ago, when Florida and the nation sought to help low-income students get the support they need to soar in school, private tutoring subsidized by the government became one way to ensure an equal playing field with middle-class students whose parents can afford to pay a tutor.
Unfortunately, experience now shows that the state failed in its most basic duty to protect the taxpayers’ money.
In response to a three-month Tampa Bay Times investigation exposing poor state oversight of private tutoring contractors, Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett this week vowed to crack down on these private firms.
The Times’ investigation found that more than a handful of tutoring firms are run by criminals, corporate lackeys and swindlers trying to make a quick buck. Florida will now require criminal background checks for those who lead these tutoring companies, but much more needs to be done.
Private tutoring companies have lured in students (and parents) with rewards, prizes and even vacation trips for the school officials overseeing these tutoring contracts. The more students who sign up, the more money in the private tutor’s pocket.
Oversight is welcome, but private tutoring costs may not be worth it to the state unless results can be shown. Fifty million dollars were set aside by the Florida Legislature for the program last year. Florida was granted a waiver from the federal law, which requires school districts to hire private tutors for underprivileged students in failing schools. Predictably, tutoring lobbyists pushed legislators to retain the funding, part of the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act.
Some of these firms have made almost $60 an hour, per student, which is outrageous considering the state has yet to restore the public education budget to what it was before the Great Recession.
Beyond oversight, Florida needs to look at the issue of private tutoring on a district-by-district basis. Background checks will not stop those tutors tempted to abuse a lax system by falsifying student sign-up records for more federal funding or overcharging by the hour.
Moreover, where’s the accountability to show tutoring delivers results? Students need all the help they can get, but the cost has to justify the means. Tutoring programs should be required to show students are improving in the subject areas they needed help on.
It is shameful to see adults exploiting a program meant to help underprivileged students whose families don’t have the means to pay tutors as middle class parents often do.
Only tough oversight and accountability will restore public trust in a well-intentioned tutoring program that has turned into a million-dollar giveaway for fraudsters.