Maryland education officials have notified Prince George's County that it cannot use federal money to provide extra tutoring because a large number of its public schools are failing under the No Child Left Behind law.
Last month, the county school system announced it would offer after-school and Saturday instruction for low-performing students -- effectively competing against private companies for Title I federal grant money that pays for such tutoring.
But in a letter this month, Prince George's schools chief Andre J. Hornsby told parents that the program had to be scrapped before it had started, saying the State Department of Education had declared the county ineligible for the federal money.
The switch has forced parents to scramble to find other tutors, many of whom work at private learning centers and do not provide school-based tutoring.
Prince George's lost its eligibility because it is likely to be among the school systems placed on a state "watch list" early this week, once officials finish reviewing student test scores used to measure compliance with the No Child Left Behind Act, said Ron Peiffer, state deputy superintendent of schools.
Montgomery County, the only other Maryland school system to venture into providing federally funded in-house tutoring, has kept its eligibility, Peiffer said.
No Child Left Behind, the centerpiece of President Bush's education policy, gives parents two options if their children are enrolled in high-poverty schools that have not met academic benchmarks for three consecutive years: Their children can transfer to better-performing schools or receive free after-school tutoring, including from private companies.
In Prince George's, about 3,000 students were eligible for the tutoring, formally known as "supplemental educational services." Now, parents will have to choose from a list of state-approved providers -- many of them for-profit companies -- though the school district has encouraged elementary and middle schools to offer the in-house tutoring even without federal backing. Some PTAs are considering paying for in-school tutoring, said district spokeswoman Kelly Alexander.
"It is unfortunate," said state Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George's). "With the number of students we have who need tutoring, one would think that the school system would be the most appropriate place for them to receive that tutoring."
The federal policy is not intended to deny tutoring to students but rather to bar failing school systems from providing that tutoring, which in Prince George's costs about $1,700 per child annually, with federal money.
Baltimore is the only one of Maryland's 24 school systems on the watch list, having been designated for "corrective action" last year after failing for three years in a row to meet testing benchmarks.
Prince George's and any other school system added to the list this week will be labeled "in need of improvement," a designation for failing to achieve the testing benchmarks two years in a row. Peiffer declined to release further information, saying the data are under review.
As of Friday, all but three of the 25 public high schools in Prince George's had failed to meet Maryland's performance targets on reading and math tests, according to new data from the state Department of Education. State officials previously had reported, in the summer, that only nine schools had failed. At that time, not all of the results were in.
The latest number largely reflects students' poor performance on a geometry exam given to high school sophomores. Results for that exam were released in September, and local officials have spent recent weeks appealing possible inaccuracies to the state.
Under the No Child Left Behind law, U.S. school districts are judged not just by overall scores on state standardized tests but by how their students within 20 "subgroups" perform. For example, most of a district's students can succeed on a particular test, but if a majority of its low-income students fail the exam, the district can be deemed failing.
The subgroups include students categorized by race, income, disability and fluency in English. Attendance and graduation rates are also taken into consideration.
Every Maryland school system failed to meet state benchmarks in at least one of those categories last year, Peiffer said. He declined to say how many again failed this year. To be removed from "in need of improvement" status, a system must meet the benchmarks for two consecutive years.
"It doesn't mean that a system is totally non-functioning," Peiffer said. "It just means that there are some areas they need to work on. Nevertheless, the [No Child Left Behind] law is structured to be all or nothing."
Prince George's educators have long struggled to improve test scores in the midst of organizational turmoil. Recent weeks have been no different. Hornsby, in his second year as chief executive of the 140,000-student district, is facing a review by the county school board's ethics panel -- and by the state prosecutor's office -- over a 10-day trip to South Africa that he accepted last year from a Minnesota-based company that does business with the school system.
The ethics panel also is looking into Hornsby's role in nearly $1 million worth of purchases that the district made from a California-based software company, LeapFrog SchoolHouse, that employs a woman with whom he lives.
In an interview last week, Hornsby said that the woman, Sienna Owens, sells the company's products in Virginia, not Maryland, and that their relationship did not influence purchasing decisions. He said the "scholarship" he accepted from Plato Learning, another software company, for the South Africa trip was related to a leadership position he held with the National Alliance of Black School Educators and also had no bearing on how the Prince George's district conducts business.
Hornsby characterized the controversy as "character assassination" by people he would not name and said he planned to keep focusing on improving the school system. Since his arrival 15 months ago from New York, Hornsby has toughened academic standards, helped erase an $82 million budget deficit and generally raised test scores -- though the scores remain among the lowest in Maryland.
For example, the percentage of Prince George's students passing the state reading and math exams increased in the past year in grades 3, 5 and 8, according to results released in June. Scores also rose among high school students.
Howard Tutman, president of the County Council of PTAs, said the inquiries into Hornsby's conduct are "another distraction." He added, "We want our children's education improved, and this is pulling the focus away from improving the county's schools."
Staff writers Ylan Q. Mui and Nurith C. Aizenman contributed to this report.