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California Seeks NCLB Waiver to Fund Expanded Learning

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California is trying again for a waiver from some provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act in order to free up tens of millions of dollars so districts can run their own tutoring programs at low-income, low-performing schools.

The State Board of Education voted unanimously May 7 to ask the U.S. Department of Education for a four-year exemption from the section of the law requiring schools that haven't met their academic goals to bring in private tutors using part of their Title I funds for educating disadvantaged students.

Under the federal education law, schools that didn't meet their academic goals are designated as being in program improvement and have to implement an escalating set corrective measures. For example, after three years, they have to set aside 20 percent of their Title I funds to pay for outside organizations to work with struggling students. Districts choose from a list of supplemental educational services, or SES, providers approved by their state that includes for-profit and non-profit companies and faith-based groups.

But California education officials argue that the programs aren't meeting their goals—and worse. Several superintendents and parents at last week's board meeting accused some providers of fraud.

"The current system that's in place is fraught with major problems," said Robin Bourbonnais, the supplemental educational services coordinator in Riverside Unified School District, during testimony before the state school board last week

Just this year alone, Bourbonnais said her district, located about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, encountered providers submitting applications and invoices for nonexistent students and tutoring sessions, attendance documents with forged parents' signatures, and fraudulent background checks on tutors.

"At this very moment, at our request, the U.S. Department of Education's inspector general's office is investigating several of our contracted providers," added Bourbonnais. "It seems as if my full-time job now is doing detective work and analyzing handwriting samples."

The department's  Office of Inspector General reported that complaints against SES rose significantly between 2009 and 2013.

"In 2009, we had only one SES investigation; since then, we have received complaints for another 31 matters for investigation, and this trend is continuing," wrote William D. Hamel, assistant inspector general for investigations in an Oct. 13, 2013 letter to the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Other California school and district administrators also said that some providers were not giving schools and teachers feedback on the academic progress of their students.

A draft of the waiver request letter prepared by the state education department says that between the 2011-12 and 2013-14 school years, Title I schools in California that were designated as needing improvement for two or more years, spent more than half a billion dollars on these supplemental educational services "with little evidence of improved academic achievement by students who participated in the program."

A 2009 analysis of supplemental educational programs nationwide, found statistically significant improvements in students who attended the programs on a regular basis, which generally meant about 90 percent of the time. But those gains varied from provider to provider.

Private companies won't be shut out of the supplemental educational services marketplace, however. Board members agreed to rewrite part of the waiver letter to make it clear that districts could continue to contract with outside providers. 

This would be California's second attempt at a waiver. The U.S. Department of Education denied a first request in 2012 because state officials refused to include the requirement for a teacher evaluation system based, in part, on student test scores.

There are precedents for this type of a waiver. As Alyson Klein reported recently in her Politics K-12 blog, the federal government has granted similar exemptions to Chicago and North Dakota.

If the department approves California's request, districts would still have to set aside 15 percent of their Title I money for intervention programs and 5 percent to provide transportation for students to attend programs off campus, but they would have more control and flexibility.  

Tom Torlakson, the state superintendent of public instruction, said school districts should be able to "decide for themselves what's the best investment for their kids' academic improvement and success."

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