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Details of subsidized tutoring deal remain elusive

Florida lawmakers told reporters Tuesday that they will free school districts from requirements to pay for subsidized tutoring programs.

After quietly tackling the issue in budget conferences, House and Senate leaders said they were on the brink of a deal to make the program optional for school districts. The move would give districts control over tens of millions of dollars in federal education funding.

But as of Wednesday evening, the details of the agreement still weren't settled.

A House spokesman said the lower chamber had yet to see the final language being proposed by the Senate.

A Senate spokeswoman said it was "still a work in progress."

Tutoring had been a sticking point in the budget negotiations, Senate Education Budget Chair Bill Galvano said.

The House had been pushing to repeal a law that funnels federal dollars for low-income children into the tutoring programs. The Senate wanted keep some sort of tutoring requirement in place, but create safeguards to ensure the programs were cost efficient effective..

The Senate ultimately "ceded to the House position," said Galvano, R-Bradenton.

Galvano said the two chambers had also agreed to new accountability measures, but he didn't have the exact language.

"We're just working on some verbiage to give directions to school districts so they know there is an opportunity to interact with private providers," he said.

The process is being watched anxiously by schools superintendents and for-profit tutoring providers alike. The former want more control over their budgets. The latter want to hang on to their share of what's now a $50 million industry in Florida.

The debate over subsidized tutoring was sparked by a Tampa Bay Times investigation. Published in February, the stories showed that criminals were earning tax dollars running tutoring companies for poor kids; lax regulators weren't cracking down on companies for overbilling or gaming the system; and the program was rife with conflicts of interest.

-- Michael LaForgia and Kathleen McGrory