New rules will govern tutoring companies operating under No Child Left Behind

Thousands of low-income families in Washington state are getting an enticing offer in the mail this month: Free homework help for their kids, provided mainly by private tutoring companies.

It’s all due to Washington losing its waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which says 100 percent of students should be passing state math and reading tests this year. Because Washington schools largely aren’t meeting that standard, school districts must redirect 20 percent of their federal Title I money — about $40 million annually statewide — to help pay for the extra tutoring efforts.

But federal and state officials are concerned about the way the tutors have operated in the past, both across the country and in Washington state, where some students were offered free tutoring before the state was temporarily excused from complying with the federal law in 2012.

Recent guidelines from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General aim to reduce fraud among the tutoring companies, which are also known as Supplemental Educational Services providers.

The federal recommendations come after tutoring providers in New York, Michigan, Ohio and Florida were charged with criminal acts such as falsifying student attendance records, bribing school officials and billing school districts for tutoring sessions that never occurred. Following criminal investigations, several tutoring companies paid millions to settle fraud claims, while some of their executives were sentenced to jail time.

In Washington state, that level of illegal activity didn’t take place among state-approved tutors the last time school districts paid them to offer tutoring, state officials said.

Still, 10 school districts in Washington filed complaints about tutoring providers in past years, according to documents obtained by The News Tribune through a public records request. The school districts’ complaints ranged from allegations that tutoring staff came onto school grounds without permission to one district accusing three companies of forging parent signatures on student enrollment forms.

Based partly on the federal guidance and partly on the past complaints, state officials are imposing new rules for providers this year to help prevent fraudulent activity and to reel in the tutoring companies’ marketing efforts.

“There are a multitude of assurances that we did not have before that they have to address,” said Gayle Pauley, Title I programs director with the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).

The revamp is prompted by the loss of the state’s No Child Left Behind waiver, following Washington’s failure to require that statewide testing data be used to evaluate teachers and principals.

Under the provisions of the federal law, high-poverty schools that haven’t met the law’s achievement standards for more than two years must send out letters informing parents that they may qualify for free tutoring services. Those letters went out this month.

As of last week, OSPI had approved 115 tutoring providers in Washington, while 42 aspiring providers had been rejected and were in the process of appealing that decision, according to data provided by OSPI.

Many of the new rules governing the tutoring companies deal with how they market their services to parents and distribute enrollment forms — common features of past complaints. Between 2010 and 2012, six school districts complained about providers going door-to-door or approaching parents and students on school grounds, according to OSPI records.

In two of those instances, OSPI removed tutoring companies from the state-approved list of providers in response to school districts’ complaints. In the only other case that resulted in removal from the state list, the agency acted because the provider’s insurance policy lapsed.

Under OSPI’s new rules, tutoring companies can no longer knock on doors to advertise their services, nor can they approach parents on school grounds while they are picking up or dropping off their children.

“This invades their privacy,” according to a digital presentation OSPI made to tutoring providers last week.

Another new rule prohibits a company from telling parents that their child could get an iPod, iPad or computer if they sign up for the company’s tutoring program. Two complaints filed with OSPI in 2011 alleged that one company had been using the promise of the electronics as a marketing tool.

Under the new regulations, companies can still give away electronic equipment if it is used as part of a student’s instructional program. But they can’t tell parents about that possibility until after the parents sign up their child.

“It’s a huge concern to me, because specifically the services are to help the kids with reading and mathematics, not to be enticed by a device of any kind,” Pauley said.

A more substantial rule change aims to prevent companies from submitting enrollment forms on parents’ behalf. In 2011, one school district alleged that three companies submitted enrollment forms with forged parent signatures.

OSPI never finished its investigation into those complaints, as Washington was granted a waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act during the middle of the inquiry, negating the need for a state-approved list of tutoring providers.

Under the new rules, only parents can submit their children’s tutoring enrollment forms to the school districts. School districts – not tutoring providers – are responsible for contacting eligible families and notifying them that the tutoring is available.

Some tutoring providers worry that the state’s new rules will make it harder for parents to learn about and access tutoring services, though.

“It’s always a concern when you’re not sure how parents will learn about the opportunity,” said Gail Smith, who co-owns seven Sylvan Learning Center locations in Washington, including ones in Tacoma and Olympia. “Some districts are better than others about sharing this information in a way that is easily comprehended by the parents.”

Additionally, OSPI has made it harder this year to for companies to become an approved provider in the first place.

To win OSPI approval for the 2014-15 school year, the tutoring companies had to submit testing data showing that their teaching methods helped students improve academically over time, Pauley said.

Unlike in the past, brand-new, unproven tutoring outlets weren’t considered this year, as they couldn’t meet that requirement, Pauley said.

Going forward, OSPI also plans to conduct deeper reviews of the tutoring companies during its annual reviews of school districts’ tutoring programs, Pauley said. In past years, the questions the agency asked tutoring companies during the reviews were “more superficial,” Pauley said.

“There are much more detailed questions being asked,” Pauley said. “Now it gets into more depth around the services you are providing, and how you are ensuring those services are appropriate for the students you’re serving.”

Still, school district officials have expressed concern that there’s no good way to hold tutoring providers accountable for what they’re teaching students, despite an OSPI requirement that the providers align their curricula with those of school districts.

“My primary concern is that they have their own curricula, their own strategy,” said Tacoma school superintendent Carla Santorno earlier this month. “If you are below proficient and you are going to have somebody work with you, you need some continuity.”