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Amendment would free schools from private tutoring requirement

Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, added an unexpected provision to her sweeping education accountability bill Thursday: a pitch to free Florida school districts from having to provide private tutoring services at low-income schools.

Under current law, Florida school districts must spend 15 percent of their federal dollars for low-income students on private tutoring services. Passidomo's pitch: Give school systems the option to spend that money on tutoring, or on other programs for low-income children instead.

"We feel that each school district is in the best position to determine and understand the needs of their students, and the best use of their Title I funding," Passidomo said Thursday.

State Education Commissioner Tony Bennett agreed.

"It will increase choices because it will set up a survival of the fittest," Bennett said. "It will weed out bad providers and allow school districts to chose the best programs for their students."

The committee added the language to the bill and sent it along to the House floor.

Private tutoring programs, also known as Supplemental Education Services, have come under intense fire in recent months. Earlier this year, a Tampa Bay Times investigation found that tutoring providers have operated in Florida with little oversight and no clear track record of producing results, despite having received millions in federal dollars.

For years, supplemental education services were required under the federal No Child Left Behind law. But even after Florida received a waiver from the law last year, state lawmakers opted to keep the tutoring requirement.

Passidomo said her proposal would not "preclude a school district from contracting with any provider for after-school services."

"It does give school district the flexibility to terminate a provider that they don't think is up to snuff," she said, noting that districts currently can't choose their providers.

The private tutoring industry is putting up a fight.

Matthew Fields, co-founder of Miami-based Rocket Learning, called the tutoring services "a social justice issue."

"You are taking away an important decision that, under current law, resides with parents and giving it to school districts," he said.

Added Neal Kimball, CEO of the Orlando-based tutoring company A+ Tutor U: "It's companies like us and charter schools that are adding a little bit of that competitive element to keep the school districts honest with how they are doing their work."

But school districts are intent on shepherding the language into law.

Joy Frank, of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, thanked the House Education Committee five times. "This gives us the ability to ensure the services we provide to low income students are quality services," she said.

Connie Milito, the chief government relations officer for the Hillsborough County school district, pointed out that most providers "do a great job." But she said the school system had concerns with several companies.

"What this amendment will do, from the district's point of view, is give us the flexibility to live up to the accountability you're putting out there for us," she said.