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Free tutoring promise left behind

Some schools skeptical that aides can help

WASHINGTON -- Sandra Senda wanted a free private tutor for her kids, just like the No Child Left Behind law promised. She had no idea the deal came with a big headache.

She couldn't get an answer about when the program would start. By the time it did, half the school year was gone. Her son was accepted but her daughter wasn't, without explanation.

Exasperated, Senda went to her school board with a message: ``It's not fair. Our tax dollars are going to this stuff. I want help for my daughter. I expect to get it."

She finally did. And as the new school year begins in Hialeah, Fla., Senda is determined to get her daughter, Genesis, into tutoring right away this time -- without the hassle.

As ideas go, the federal promise of free tutoring was bold. It's also proving hard to keep.

Sluggish enrollment, local resistance, questionable oversight, poor outreach to parents -- all of it has hampered a program that Congress adopted nearly five years ago.

Of more than 2.2 million children eligible for tutoring, only 19 percent of them got it in 2004-05, according to auditors at the congressional Government Accountability Office.

Enrollment is rising, but still fewer than two of 10 eligible kids take part.

``It's appalling," said Michael Petrilli, who helped oversee the first years of the program for the Education Department.

``There are places in this country where poor parents have no idea that free tutoring is even available for them," said Petrilli, now a policy leader for the Fordham Foundation, a conservative education think tank.

Participation is the best gauge of the program because there is no firm data yet about what matters most -- whether tutoring is helping students do better in math and reading.

There are encouraging signs.

The number of students in tutoring almost quadrupled from 2003 to 2005. Some districts have used aggressive, creative means to reach out to parents.

But even optimistic observers concede progress has been slow. In one-fifth of districts where tutoring was required, not a single student received services, the GAO found.

``At the very least, we should be reaching half the kids," said Jeanne Allen, president of The Center for Education Reform, which lobbies to expand choices for parents.

``We should be able to do that with very little effort," she said.

President Bush's education law promises choices. If a school receives federal poverty aid and does not make its goals for two straight years, students can transfer to a better school.

But many parents skip that offer and choose tutoring instead. The option of a free tutor for poor children kicks in when a school falls short for three straight years.

Parents can pick any tutor from a list approved by their state. That often includes private tutors that would be too expensive for parents if they had to pay out of pocket.

Yet there have been snags everywhere. Among the familiar ones:

Schools that can't recruit tutors for students in highly rural areas, or for students with disabilities, no matter where they live.

School districts that don't tell parents that tutoring is available. Some letters sent home to parents come too late, or they are written in jargon that's hard to understand.

Tutors who aren't allowed into schools, limiting their access to students. Some tutors and teachers never coordinate their lessons, so students get disjointed instruction.

Even the way the law works is awkward, Allen said.

It requires the school districts to concede their schools have fallen short, give up some federal aid, and promote the tutoring program even if they don't support it.

Indeed, surveys show many school leaders are skeptical that tutoring will help.

Districts must reserve up to 20 percent of federal aid for tutoring and student transfers. That wouldn't come close to covering the costs for all eligible children.

But money often isn't the problem. Districts tend to spend much less than they can.

In Broward County, Fla., school leaders sent a letter to parents that actually discouraged parents from seeking tutoring for their children. ``We feel strongly that these funds can be much better spent helping students in the classroom," the district superintendent wrote.

The state didn't go for that. It ordered the district to write a new letter. Florida lawmakers have also ordered statewide changes this year to help more parents sign up.

Cheri Pierson Yecke, the chancellor of K-12 public schools in Florida, said many school principals in her state have embraced tutoring. Others ask her what's in it for them.

She tells them tutors can help kids do better on tests, which in turn keeps the school out of federal trouble. ``Once schools start to look at it that way, they're much more aggressive about getting parents enrolled," she said.

Congressional leaders who backed Bush's law are anxious for results, too. The Education Department has loosened its rules in some cities in hopes of spurring more enrollment.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has also warned state leaders that she is ready to withhold money from states and districts that don't comply. The agency says it has done a lot to help, although the GAO admonished the department for not providing enough guidance.

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