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Taxpayer-financed tutors have criminal records, conflicted interests and bribe kids

When Yolanda Axson wasn’t watching, a pot of hot water spilled into a crib at her daycare in Orlando, scalding a 4-month-old boy.

She served probation for felony child neglect and then, barred from child care, found a less-regulated line of work. She started a company to earn tax dollars tutoring poor kids in Florida’s failing schools.

When state officials saw Axson’s name on an application for the government tutoring program, they didn’t hesitate. They stamped their approval, and her business, Busy BEE Services, went to work tutoring Florida’s neediest children.

The cost to taxpayers per student? At least $60 an hour.

Axson’s case points to a larger problem with mandated tutoring in Florida: The program pays public money to people with criminal records, and to cheaters and profiteers who operate virtually unchecked by state regulators.

In a three-month investigation, The Tampa Bay Times examined invoice records from 59 school districts, conducted dozens of interviews and reviewed thousands of pages of complaint reports, audits and other documents, and found:

•  Florida school districts spent at least $7 million last year on tutoring companies run by people with criminal records. Among those who have headed state-approved tutoring firms are a rapist, thieves and drug users.

•  In more than 40 cases across the state, tutoring companies have faked student sign-up sheets or billed for tutoring that never happened. Companies that overcharged for tutoring earned more than $10 million last year alone.

•  The program is riddled with conflicts of interest. In one county last year, more than 100 teachers moonlighted as tutors of their own students, flouting state ethics rules by positioning themselves to steer kids toward their secondary employers.

•  Dozens of tutoring firms have broken federal rules by luring impoverished kids to sign up with promises of bicycles, gift cards and computers. Others have sent school administrators on golf outings or sponsored retreats for district officials who administer tutoring contracts. More on Michael Laforgia's investigation here.

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