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Tutoring lobby backs bill that would undo a state reform effort

Under pressure from the for-profit tutoring industry, lawmakers in Albany are backing a bill that would subvert the state’s efforts to change the way extra help is delivered to needy students.

Last month, New York won permission from the Obama administration to give federal funds that had gone to the tutoring companies to a group of organizations that state officials would vet.

Under the legislation promoted by the tutoring companies and peddled to lawmakers, that change would be revoked. State lobbying records show that the legislation followed a spending spree of tens of thousands of dollars in the last six months by the tutoring industry.

The sponsor of the bill in the Assembly, Karim Camara, said in an interview today that he decided to introduce the legislation after a lobbyist hired by a Miami-based tutoring company brought it to him.

“I saw the bill, I read the bill. So I decided to introduce this bill,” Camara said.

Education committee chair John Flanagan sponsored a companion bill in the State Senate.

Concerns about the services private tutoring companies were providing needy students were one impetus behind the Obama administration’s decision to let states apply to escape some requirements of the decade-old No Child Left Behind law. The law mandated that districts spend some funds earmarked for poor students on tutoring providers that were prevented from having a relationship with states, districts, or schools. Last year, the tutoring, known as “supplemental educational services” funneled nearly $1 billion to hundreds of tutoring companies.

Last month, New York became one of 19 states to receive an NCLB waiver.

“We gave New York a waiver to remove obstacles to reform,” said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. “I don’t think it makes any sense for Albany to put new ones in the way.”

The bill does not appear likely to pass during the current legislative session, which ends tomorrow. But supporters of the bill said if it fails now they plan to introduce it again next year.

New York’s legislation is part of a concerted, multi-state campaign by the tutoring lobby to preserve the rules that existed under NCLB in states that have received waivers. The campaign, organized by an advocacy group called Tutor Our Children, is funded by SES providers and has already resulted in similar legislation in Maryland and Florida, where a law preserving SES tutoring passed just after the state won its NCLB waiver in March.

“USDOE just accepted our waiver application that will remove obstacles to reform and help our students achieve college and career readiness,” said State Education Commissioner John King, in a statement. “It doesn’t make sense to start throwing new obstacles in the way of that reform, and that’s exactly what this bill does.”

Camara said he felt compelled to support the legislation because many needy students stand to lose free tutoring services. In New York City, more than 50,000 students are currently enrolled in SES tutoring programs.

New York’s NCLB waiver would still require the state to provide additional services for struggling students. The difference would be that the state would be able to decide how to structure those services. Instead of paying private operators, the state could allow districts to use the funds to support relationships between schools and community partners.

In New York City, tutoring companies were found multiple times to have billed for services they could not prove they had provided. In April, the U.S. Justice Department sued Princeton Review, a major test-prep company, of bilking the city of millions of dollars when it was providing SES tutoring.

The shift could cut deep into the profits of tutoring providers, many of which sprung up to capitalize on NCLB’s tutoring mandate.

In Albany, Tutor Our Children hired Hinman Straub Advisors, a law firm, to push the bill, at a price tag of $7,000 a month, according to state lobbying records. The contract started in late January, shortly before the state asked the U.S. Department of Education for a waiver.

A tutoring company that is part of the Tutor Our Children coalition, Rocket Learning, entered into a separate contract with a different lobbyist, the YorkGroup, in March. It was the YorkGroup’s head, Tiffany Raspberry, who brought the bill to Camara, he said.

And another tutoring company, Academic Advantage, hired a third lobbying group, JJMH Consulting, just 10 days ago to press legislators to support the bill.

When the York Group registered its contract with the state in March, it said it intended to lobby the New York City Council. Last month, two council members sponsored a resolution to support the state bill.

“It doesn’t matter to me if it’s for-profit or non-profit if it’s a good program,” Robert Jackson, the council’s education committee chair and one of the resolution’s sponsors, said today, even as he said the bill is “complicated.”

Tutor Our Children touted the council resolution in a May “legislative alert” that it disseminated to ask parents and SES providers to contact lawmakers to express their support for the state bill. The alert did not explain that the beneficiaries of the bill would be for-profit vendors, instead thanking recipients for their “support for free tutoring for needy students.”

The alert also encouraged its supporters to “thank Assemblyman Camara and Senator Flanagan for introducing this important legislation.”

Camara said he was not concerned that the bill would maintain a marketplace for for-profit providers.

“I know there are a lot of great companies that are defined as a legal entity as for-profit,” he said. “What I’m more concerned about is whether or not these organizations are doing great work to close the persistent achievement gap.”

Camara said he was not optimistic that the bill would make it through the Assembly before the legislative session ends. Last week, the State Senate passed its version of the bill, which was sponsored by education committee chair John Flanagan. Flanagan did not return calls for comment today.

Two operators of nonprofits that would stand to benefit from the waiver criticized the bill in an opinion piece posted today on Huffington Post. Richard Buery runs the Children’s Aid Society, which operates after-school programs, and Nitzan Pelman is the head of Citizen Schools, which provides a second shift of educators to extend the school day. (Pelman also serves on an advisory board to GothamSchools.)

“Current SES programs are often poorly coordinated with school-day instruction, and success is often driven more by marketing budgets than impact on students,” they wrote. “New York can put these funds to better use.”

CORRECTION: This article originally stated that the State Senate had passed its version of the supplemental educational services bill. It has not.

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