For years America’s public schools have resisted education reforms that give parents the ability to choose an alternative school for their child. Now, some public schools have gone even further, denying low-income children the free tutoring they are entitled to under federal law.
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 (NCLB) provided parents of low-income students in low-performing schools with an avenue to boost their children’s education. Children attending Title I eligible schools that have not met state performance standards for three consecutive years are entitled to "supplemental educational services" (i.e. after-school tutoring). School districts must reserve a portion of their share of federal Title I funding to pay for such tutoring, as well as public school choice.
This month, the Education Industry Association (EIA) hosted a forum to bring together state legislators, heads of tutoring companies, and civil rights organizations to discuss how No Child Left Behind’s tutoring provisions have been implemented. The news was not encouraging. The Department of Education reported that just 11 percent of eligible children received after-school tutoring services in 2004. The roots of that participation failure may lie with foot-dragging by educational bureaucracies that were less than excited by the tutoring initiative.
According to an EIA survey of tutoring providers, many school districts weren’t helpful in ensuring that tutoring programs were well implemented. The survey, which included responses from 216 providers nationwide, found that 60 percent of providers said that they did not think that school districts gave parents sufficient notice to enroll their children in tutoring. One tutoring provider reported that schools’ reluctance to promote the program "made us feel we were encountering passive resistance at all levels in the school system." Tutoring providers pointed to a number of administrative problems encountered in efforts to implement the program.
Throughout the nation, the success of the implementation of after-school tutoring program has varied by school district. Tutoring providers point to the Baltimore city school district as a model of cooperation. There, 4,000 children received tutoring last year — 80 percent of the students for whom District funding was available. In contrast, Pittsburgh provided tutoring for only 100 of the 3,000 children who were eligible.
As Congress considers reforms to the No Child Left Behind law, a number of policy changes can be made to ensure that more parents have access to free tutoring for their children. One helpful reform would be to allow children to be eligible for tutoring the first year that their school fails to meet state performance benchmarks, rather than enduring three consecutive years of low performance. Another constructive reform would be to remove incentives for school districts to avoid spending the 20 percent of Title I that was intended to be allocated for tutoring. At present, school districts are allowed to use unspent Title I funds allocated for tutoring if the funding goes unused.
Such improvements in the after-school tutoring provisions of the current No Child Left Behind law would be a step in the right direction. But Congress shouldn’t stop there. Bolder reforms are needed to ensure that America’s at-risk children have access to the quality instruction they deserve.
President Bush recently proposed a $100 million Opportunity Scholarships for Kids initiative that would allow six to 10 cities to offer private-school scholarships to low-income children trapped in persistently failing schools (i.e. schools that failed to meet performance targets for six years). Offering private-school scholarships to these children would demonstrate the demand for additional forms of school choice in school systems throughout the nation.
The federal government annually spends more than $66 billion on K-12 education programs — more than $1,400 a year for every public-school student in America. The best way to ensure that every child has access to a quality education is to give parents greater control of how their children’s share of that funding is spent. Options such as making funding portable through opportunity scholarships and improving access to tutoring are important steps toward this goal.
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