TEA Tightening Rules for Tutoring Companies. But Will They Work?

As the district announced yesterday, and the DMN reported over the weekend (paywall), DISD is accusing five private tutoring companies of more $500,000 in fraud. That's on top of more than $140,000 the district accused two other companies of illegally taking in April after an external audit.

The companies deny wrongdoing, but let's assume for a moment that DISD wouldn't throw around fraud accusations without some cause. That's a helluva lot of money being plucked from taxpayers' wallets.

So why doesn't DISD just cut ties with the suspect companies and go on its merry way? The short answer is, it can't.

The program works like this: Private companies apply to the Texas Education Agency to be on the list of providers who can provide the outside tutoring mandated by President George W. Bush's 2001 education reform law, No Child Left Behind. Parents at low-performing schools are then allowed to pick from a list of TEA-approved tutors providing services in their area. The provider then bills the district for the number of hours worked, and the district pays.

Districts have no say in determining which companies are eligible to provide tutoring to its students. Even if the district suspects it is being bilked by a company, parents are still able to send their kids there unless the TEA removes it from the list of approved providers. That has never happened. The agency has not even had a mechanism for doing so.

TEA spokesman Suzanne Marchmen said the agency is working to make the system more accountable. All 213 approved tutors will be required to reapply by June 26 using a more thorough application that will require them to list potential conflicts of interests, any complaints against them, both in Texas and elsewhere, their methodology for measuring student achievement. Other criteria for removal are listed on the School Improvement Resource Center website, which promises that more are being developed.

"Moving forward, definitely if they're out of compliance with the requirements of their services, they will be removed from the list," Marchman said. "Prior to this type of overhaul, those type of criteria were not laid out for providers."

Marchman said TEA is creating an external review committee that will rate providers' applications using a point system, which will influence the agency's decision. Applications are self-reported, however, and it's unclear how far TEA will go to determine the accuracy of the application.

None of which would have helped DISD one iota in its cases against the seven tutoring companies it claims are guilty of fraud.

"From the agency's end of things we have a process for reviewing programmatic complaints," Marchman said. "If there's a contractual dispute between the district and a provider that has to be resolved between the two of them. Once a parent selects a company as a tutoring provider, the district enters into a contract with that company. We don't have an ability by law to intervene in that contract."

So DISD is essentially forced to contract with these companies by TEA, and TEA can't do anything if DISD gets screwed over? Seems like there should be at least some degree of local control, since the state bureaucracy seems impenetrable. Why, after all, has it taken eight years (TEA started monitoring tutoring agencies in the 2004-05 school year) to implement some sort of reform? If you're going to mandate this type of multimillion-dollar program, the effectiveness of which is already an open question, you should have something more rigorous in place to ensure accountability.

I asked Marchman about the delay.

"You know, that I don't have a real good answer for. I know part of it has just been we've gone through two reductions in our agency in the last, what has it been, seven years and we've had budget cuts. Not that it's the entire reason for it, but we're trying to do more with less."

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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson