Dozens of states intend to apply for waivers that would free their schools from a federal requirement that they set aside hundreds of millions of dollars a year for after-school tutoring, a program many researchers say has been ineffective.
The 2002 No Child Left Behind law requires school districts that repeatedly fail to meet its benchmarks to set aside federal money to pay for outside tutors. But studies released in the past five years have found mixed results, at best, from the program.
They say it has suffered from participation rates as low as 20 percent, uneven quality among tutors, a lack of coordination between tutors and teachers, poor oversight by the states and a prohibition against giving the lowest achieving students priority. Also, they say, there has been no connection between students' success and tutors' paychecks.
"We are spending millions of dollars a year, and we are not seeing any measurable results for students," said Matthew Mohs, who oversees the St. Paul Public Schools' tutoring program, which set aside about $4.5 million for tutoring this school year.
However, the program's defenders argue it gives poor children access to the same resources as their wealthier classmates and that picking a tutor gives parents an important choice in their child's education.
Patricia Burch, an education professor at the University of Southern California, studied tutoring programs in Austin, Chicago, Dallas, Milwaukee and Minneapolis and found the programs haven't worked because of design flaws.
States have the authority to approve tutoring companies and monitor their performance, but oversight varies because there's no federal money for it. And, Burch said, schools aren't permitted to steer students to the best tutors on the state's list so parents often base their decisions on the companies' marketing.
"It's not necessarily that the idea is that bad, it's just not designed well," Burch said.
John Nunnery, executive director of the Center for Educational Partnerships at Old Dominion University, analyzed multiple studies on the tutoring program's impact on the math and reading scores of about 140,000 students in 17 states. He concluded the program had "negligible" effects.
It can create more financial problems for struggling schools. Failing districts must set aside about 20 percent of their federal education money for poor students for tutoring. In districts where few students sign up, the money goes unspent even as other parts of the budget are slashed. In urban districts, where more students tend to use the program, there's often not enough money to provide enough tutoring — Burch's research puts it at 40 hours per student, per year — to matter.
"The bottom line is we need performance-based contracts if we are going to have outside contracts," Burch said. She said several states and districts were considering them.
Steven Pines, executive director of the Education Industry Association, the trade group for private tutoring companies, estimated $650 million in federal money was spent on tutoring last year for about 600,000 students. His group supports reforms at the state and federal levels, but he said eliminating the program altogether would be unfair to the students it serves.
"I understand states and districts are looking for some breathing room financially, but that doesn't mean they should throw poor kids who are low-income and trapped in struggling schools under the bus," said Pines, whose group is part of a lobbying effort to save the program.
Pines called the research on it "a mixed bag" and said it has been successful in places that have invested in stricter oversight, including Florida and the Chicago Public Schools.
For some, the program isn't only about test scores. DeLisa Shearod's 8-year-old grandson has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and a mild form of autism. She credited his tutor with helping him pass the second grade.
"They have the patience of Job, I'll tell you that," said Shearod, who's raising her grandson in St. Paul. "His behavior problems aren't a problem anymore; now he does his homework."
It's not clear how the program will fare in Congress' ongoing overhaul of No Child Left Behind. The Senate version of the bill scraps the program, and Rep. John Kline, R-Minn, the chairman of the House education committee, was ambivalent about it in an interview. "It works well in some places and not in others," he said.
Because Congress has been slow to overhaul No Child Left Behind — which both parties agree should be updated — Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced in September that states would be able to get waivers, including for tutoring if they agree to certain reforms favored by the administration.
The department's own recent research into the program's effectiveness in five large school districts found small benefits in some districts but no effect in others, said Carmel Martin, assistant secretary for Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development.
"We think it can be effective for some students in some cases, but it doesn't make sense to require every school that misses targets to do the same thing," Martin said in an email.
Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia have notified the Department of Education they intend to apply for a waiver, with 17 states saying they would apply by the Nov. 14 deadline for the first round. A second deadline has been set for mid-February.
Minnesota plans to apply for a waiver. Minnesota schools set aside $16 million last school year for tutoring, although the state Education Department had no estimate for how much was actually spent.
Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius and some other school leaders say the money would be better spent by districts on programs that more closely support their curriculum, including in-school tutoring and summer school.
States that receive first-round waivers could halt the program in the 2012-2013 school year.
Jack Jennings, president of the independent nonprofit Center on Education Policy, predicted that would be a priority for them. A federal mandate that often leaves education money unspent "doesn't make sense right now while teachers are being laid off," he said.