By Eugene W. Hickok
Monday, May 22, 2006
Imagine being the parent of a child enrolled in a school that isn't working. You can't send him to a private school because you can't afford it, nor to another public school because there's no room. Every day he comes home from school depressed and disengaged. You do what you can. You visit with his teachers. You help with his homework. But you aren't a teacher. And his teachers, good people, are too busy to focus on your child. Slowly, he is drifting away.
Now imagine being told that your child is eligible for free tutoring after school, on weekends, whenever and wherever it is most convenient. You are told that the tutoring will focus on reading and math, that it will be based on the needs of the child, and that those providing the service have been certified by the state as qualified to tutor. You learn that the services will be aimed at making sure your child can read and calculate at his grade level and ensuring that he is prepared to do well on the state's school assessment. Most important, the tutoring will help him be promoted to the next grade ready for success.
What would be your response? Could you possibly say "no, thank you" to such an offer? And yet that is what the people in charge of a huge number of America's public schools would have us believe has been the response of parents around the country to this guarantee of supplemental educational services, which is contained in the landmark No Child Left Behind Act. These school administrators claim that of the 1.4 million children eligible for such tutoring during the past school year, only 233,000 (17 percent) had parents and guardians who found this offer worthy of acceptance. All the rest apparently declined free tutoring for their children.
That is simply preposterous.
The No Child Left Behind Act holds out the promise that children attending schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress toward academic proficiency for all students in reading and math will have access to tutoring services paid for with federal dollars. For the first time in more than 40 years of federal education policy, dollars are going directly to serve the academic needs of students rather than the schools the students attend.
The law says schools and school districts are to set aside money equal to 20 percent of their federal Title I funds for these tutoring services. It says the schools are to notify parents of their children's eligibility for the services, inform them of the names and varieties of tutoring services available, and make it easy for parents to enroll their children for the services.
But in far too many places this simply isn't happening. Why would only 17 percent of eligible children be enrolled in this program? Said U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, "Too many parents never hear about these options because they don't see the letter that comes home in their child's backpack or they can't attend the informational meeting at the school. All of us -- from the federal government to the states to districts to schools -- must do a better job of reaching out to inform parents about their options."
Here is what Spellings did not say: In far too many places, it's not the parents' fault or an oversight that's to blame. It is the people in charge of the schools, who, in far too many cases, think that the money set aside for free tutoring is money that ought to stay with their schools and districts instead -- that it's their money to manage as they see fit. And so they come up with ways to make access to the services difficult for parents. They don't disobey the law; they just don't abide by it.
The tactics can be quite subtle. In some places parental notification comes late, in letters full of legal and policy jargon and language encouraging families to refrain from signing up. Perhaps parents are given only a few days to make a decision or are told they will need to be at a certain place at a certain time to enroll their child. Maybe they are informed that the services can't be delivered at their child's school and that they will need to find their own way to get their child to and from the tutoring program. Potential providers of tutoring might be told that they can't talk to parents about what they do, or to principals, or to teachers. They might be told they must serve a certain number of kids at a certain rate at a certain place and time. Whatever it takes to make it difficult for children to get the free help they deserve and need -- whatever it takes to keep control of the money.
Too many children in this country are failing to get the education they need and deserve. What a tragedy it would be if, years from now, we learned that those responsible for providing that education to our children were the very ones responsible for their not getting it.
The writer is senior policy director at Dutko Worldwide, a public-policy and government-relations company in Washington whose clients include a coalition of supplemental educational service providers created by the Education Industry Association. He was deputy secretary of education during President Bush's first term and, before that, Pennsylvania secretary of education.