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Chicago to get relaxed tutoring rule

By Ben Feller

WASHINGTON-- The Education Department plans to allow Chicago Public Schools to provide tutoring to struggling students even though the district itself has not met academic standards-- a waiver of federal rules that could have national implications, officials said Tuesday.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings will announce the change Thursday in Chicago, two officials familiar with the policy told The Associated Press.

It marks the second time in a week she has shown flexibility in how she enforces President Bush's No Child Left Behind law.

In the other case, four Virginia school districts have been allowed to offer tutoring before they are required to offer transfers to students in struggling schools, the first time the department has allowed that sequence to be reversed.

The Education Department said Spellings would make an announcement Thursday on No Child Left Behind, but spokeswoman Susan Aspey declined to discuss it.

Depending upon how Spellings defines these pilot projects, other school districts may get the chance to apply for the same flexibility-- or they may have to wait and see.

For months, state education officials have been looking for signs on how Spellings would deliver on her promise to be more reasonable in enforcing the law if states show rising achievement.

In her case-by-case approach launched as the school year starts, Chicago is next up.

Under federal rules, school districts that fail to show enough yearly progress in reading and math for two straight years cannot provide tutoring. That restriction is designed to protect poor students from having to rely on the same schools that may not be serving them well when tapping into the law's promise of free tutoring.

But urban districts such as Chicago say the rule is unfair because their test scores in two subjects may have little to do with their ability to provide extra help. What's more, the large districts argue, the rule could keep children from getting help if other tutors aren't available.

Spellings plans to allow Chicago to be an approved provider of tutoring even though it has not made adequate yearly progress for two straight years, according to an official familiar with the change who requested anonymity because the policy had not been formally announced.

Chicago, the nation's third-largest school system, also has had one of the most expansive tutoring programs. Federal officials had previously ordered Chicago and other Illinois districts to stop providing tutoring under the law or risk losing federal money.

Michael Petrilli, a former senior aide at the Education Department who helped oversee the tutoring enforcement under Spellings, also confirmed the impending policy change. Petrilli, now vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, an education think tank, said the Bush administration had avoided issuing waivers to the law at all costs. Not anymore.

"The secretary is showing her willingness to use waivers to provide flexibility," Petrilli said. He added: "I can't imagine that other districts would not be eligible for this. I don't think they could justify keeping it to these few places."

Beyond Thursday's announcement, Spellings plans later to announce tutoring flexibility that will focus on rural schools, said a congressional official familiar with the changes who also requested anonymity because they hadn't been announced.

Patricia Sullivan, director of the Center on Education Policy, said loosening the tutoring restriction makes sense. "It's not like there are always tons of options, in terms of tutoring providers," she said.

"If your option is no tutoring services or tutoring provided by somebody in your district who knows what you need, why shouldn't you get those services?" said Sullivan, whose think tank tracks how states comply with the No Child Left Behind law.

Sullivan, too, said what other districts will want to know is how-- and whether-- they'll be able to get the same deal. The Chicago school system is expected to have to meet conditions in exchange for its flexibility, just as the four school districts in Virginia must do.

— Ben Fuller, Associated Press
Chicago Sun-Times


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