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Education Law Is Loosened for Failing Chicago Schools

Parents United for a Responsible Education (PURE), a Chicago child-advocacy group, PURE supports this ruling for a number of reasons that have national implications.

First, it's a blow to privatization. The outside contractors are VERY expensive and have not been embraced by parents. Many do not meet in the school so students have to travel to the programs. Some require a home computer which many families do not have.

Second, CPS was able to win this point only after having begun serious evaluation both of their own and the contracted-out tutoring. They found that their in-house tutoring had a similar success rate to some of the outside programs and better results than others. While we might question their evaluation methods, it's a start. In order to maintain this waiver, they will have to continue careful monitoring and show that they are actually helping students.

Third, they will be able to serve more children. If the programs are under scrutiny and have to help children, then it makes sense to have more rather than fewer children take part. More parents will enroll and keep their children in the program if it is school-based.

Finally, we generally believe that instruction works better when it's done by people who know the students and have a sense of where they are in the curriculum. I'm not saying that outside tutors might not be better on a case-by-case basis, but our general feeling is that tutoring shouldn't be an add-on to school but a coherent part of the services available to children at their own school.

By Sam Dillon

Moving once again to ease the requirements of the nation's tough new education law, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced yesterday that she would allow the Chicago Public Schools to run federally financed tutoring programs for students at low-performing schools, despite Chicago's failure to meet academic goals.

It was the second time in a week that Ms. Spellings had extended new flexibility in her enforcement of President Bush's signature education law, known as No Child Left Behind. Earlier she had extended a waiver to four Virginia districts, allowing them to offer tutoring before they offer the chance to transfer out of failing schools.

In the Chicago case, Ms. Spellings's decision means that the city will have access to millions of dollars in federal aid to tutor thousands of eligible students who would otherwise go unserved. In Virginia, the waivers will allow children to benefit a year sooner from the tutoring, which has proven far more popular among parents than the option to transfer.

The law prohibits low-performing districts from organizing their own federally financed after-school tutoring efforts with their own teachers, instead requiring that outside providers be given the money to organize the extracurricular instruction. Hundreds of private companies are seeking to participate in the tutoring industry, which is partly fueled by an estimated $2.5 billion in available federal money.

After Department of Education officials demanded in January that Chicago shut down its tutoring program, the largest in the nation, the chief executive of the Chicago schools, Arne Duncan, labeled the decision "ludicrous" and, with Mayor Richard M. Daley's support, continued the program anyway.

The dispute flared as disgruntlement over Washington's enforcement of the law was growing nationwide, with various protests by state legislatures, teachers unions and parent groups. When Ms. Spellings took office in January, she promised to use common sense to make the law more workable.

In April, she met quietly with Mr. Daley and Mr. Duncan, opening negotiations that led to the policy shift, Mr. Duncan said in an interview.

"We worked with people on the front lines to come up with a terrific new approach that we will try here in Chicago," Ms. Spellings said yesterday at a Chicago elementary school, where she outlined the new policy.

In exchange for the flexibility, Chicago has agreed to give private tutoring vendors access to public school classrooms at a fair price and to expand enrollment options so parents can sign up their children on several occasions during the school year, Ms. Spellings said.

Both Mr. Daley and Mr. Duncan applauded her speech warmly. Mr. Daley called Ms. Spellings's decision the "beginning of a new era of cooperation." Mr. Duncan described it as "the biggest change in policy since the law was enacted."

"This is a huge deal with national implications," Mr. Duncan said.

The Chicago Public Schools' tutoring program has been able to provide the after-school instruction costing about $400 per student per year, and it has proven effective at raising achievement, Mr. Duncan said. In contrast, private providers have cost the federal government about $1,800 a student per year in Chicago, he said. That cost differential proved persuasive in the discussions with Ms. Spellings, Mr. Duncan said.

"She got the fact that if the Chicago Public Schools were not a provider, literally tens of thousands of students would go without tutoring," Mr. Duncan said. Chicago's program tutored 80,000 students last year. This year 278,000 students are expected to be eligible, he said.

In a statement, the Department of Education said it was working to forge similar arrangements with other urban school districts, but it did not name them.

Los Angeles Unified, another school district on academic probation that was required to shut down its tutoring program this spring, formally requested a similar flexibility agreement in an Aug. 26 letter to Ms. Spellings, Roy Romer, its superintendent, said yesterday.

"It was the right thing to do in Chicago, and it's the right thing to do here in Los Angeles," Mr. Romer said.

But Patricia Sullivan, executive director of the Center on Education Policy, a nonprofit group, predicted that Ms. Spellings's decision, if extended to only a few cities, would lead to an outcry by many of the thousands of districts on academic probation that have been barred from organizing their own federally financed tutoring programs.

"It's not fair for just a few districts to get these deals and not all of them," Ms. Sullivan said.

— Sam Dillon
New York Times


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