Texas Tutoring Fraud

The Texas Tribune newspaper reported that after an investigation it has uncovered years of inaction by state officials while money flowed to tutoring companies, delivering few academic results and flouting state regulations. As companies racked up complaints — and school districts spent further resources investigating them — the state agency responsible for administering the program repeatedly claimed it had no authority to intervene.

For example the Dallas Independent School District, spent $18 million on tutoring since 2009.

A provision in the federal education law requires poorly performing school districts to reserve 20 percent of the federal financing they receive for economically disadvantaged students to pay for “supplemental education services,” or tutoring, in middle and high school. In the last six years, Texas school districts have spent $180 million on such services, primarily from private providers.

As the academic standards that schools had to meet under federal law increased each year, the number of schools required to set aside money for tutoring grew, and so did their troubles with the private companies providing the services.

As early as 2009, school administrators began reporting claims of falsified invoices, overly aggressive student recruitment and questionable instructional methods. They doubted the academic benefit of such programs — something internal agency evaluations had already suggested and soon confirmed. They detailed the use of Ipads, phones and laptops as incentives for students to enroll in the services. They described instances of company representatives paying students and teachers to recruit for their programs and showing up on school property without permission or criminal-history background checks.

But companies vigorously defended their practices, sometimes even filing complaints with the agency themselves. They said their gifts to students were “learning tools” permitted under the law and blamed school districts’ lack of communication if they failed to comply with state procedure.

Four years and more than 75 formal complaints (emphasis added) later, the Texas Education Agency finally moved to bar some of the most egregious offenders — including two companies operating with fake tax identification numbers and one that did not certify that its employees had passed criminal background checks — from the list of approved providers, which until 2012 included a company using Scientology-based instruction.

The program was intended to give low-income parents equal opportunity to acquire private tutoring for their children. School districts were given little control over which companies the parents selected; the companies only had to be on the state list.

In 2011, the Edinburg district asked the agency to investigate one of the state’s largest tutoring providers. It detailed a number of issues, including a lack of evidence that certified teachers conducted tutoring sessions or that instructional materials aligned with state standards or students’ academic needs.

The Houston school district, the state’s largest, filed 13 complaints in 2010. Twelve received the same response: there was insufficient evidence to proceed.

When an annual audit revealed discrepancies in the invoices of a few tutoring providers in the Dallas I.S.D., it prompted a district-level investigation of all tutoring companies that billed for services in the 2010-11 academic year.

The district identified potential problems with the invoices of 12 providers — including forms filled out in the same handwriting and misspelled names in student signatures. In all, $143,000 went for services that investigators said were not provided. Later on, it found another $500,000 in falsely billed services.

The Dallas I.S.D. began refusing to pay the companies, prompting a lawsuit from one. The district also received a letter from the Texas Education Agency threatening to withhold the district’s federal financing if it did not continue to provide tutoring.

Jordan Roberts, the director of the district’s office of grant compliance, said the Dallas I.S.D. had still not recouped any of the money it said it was owed by fraudulent providers.

“Most of these companies, when we go after them, they dissolve,” he said.

Obviously some students need tutoring in order to succeed, but the use of private companies with the lack of government oversight leads to false invoices, fraud and other crimes.  No one profits, especially the students and their parents, under these conditions except the companies that take advantage.  The Texas Education Agency and the Federal Government have an obligation and a responsibility to stop these practices.  Something needs to be done because Texas is not the only state where this is taking place.