Minnesota says the tutoring, transfer mandates are costly, ineffective and another reason to seek a waiver.
Thousands of low-income students in underperforming schools statewide will soon receive letters saying they are eligible to transfer to different schools and receive private tutoring paid for by their school districts.
If history is an indicator, however, few will take advantage of those opportunities.
Only 1,067 of the 97,562 eligible students transferred out of their schools in the 2009-10 school year, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Education. Of the 41,734 who were eligible for outside tutoring services, only 8,751 received them.
Those numbers are intensifying Minnesota's opposition to the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires schools that repeatedly do not improve their test scores to provide those options to students.
"We have never believed that one-size-fits-all mandates are the best approach to improve Minnesota schools," said Brenda Cassellius, the state's education commissioner, who is seeking a waiver to opt out of the transfer and tutoring mandates.
The letters going out are a preview of Friday's announcement of how many Minnesota schools are not making adequate progress under No Child Left Behind. The law requires such schools to spend 20 percent of their federal Title I money on the services. Schools are required to provide transfers after the second year of lagging test scores and to provide outside tutoring after a third year.
Officials see misspent money
The reasons why so few students participate vary, but rarely involve apathy by students or school districts, education officials say. Key reasons include a lack of schools and tutoring services in rural areas, but also a funding formula that allows tutoring providers to charge as much as $90 an hour.
Officials say that the $12.6 million spent on the services last year is not money well spent.
"There is little evidence that [some] mandated services have had the broad impact on student achievement that authors of the law had hoped for," Cassellius said.
Urban school officials say Minnesota's extensive choice system gives parents so many options that the transfer mandate isn't necessary.
"Not very many kids avail themselves of that option, I think, because we already have a lot of choice in Minnesota with open enrollment, charter schools and so on," said Sarah Snapp, budget director for Minneapolis Public Schools. "Kids aren't just stuck in their neighborhood schools."
In rural areas, there often isn't a school to transfer to, said Fred Nolan, Minnesota Rural Education Association's executive director.
Tutoring prices eat funding
The reason for the small percentage of students receiving outside tutoring services is more complex.
Shortly after the federal law went into effect in 2001, several small, for-profit tutoring businesses began cropping up around the metro area, but not in rural districts.
"In many medium to smaller rural communities, no one will set up provider services because there's little money there," Nolan said. "If there were a provider, you're asking relatively not-well-off parents to drive their children up to 30 miles for tutoring services. That's a difficult thing to do."
Another key reason is that tutoring companies can earn as much as $1,700 for each student, but there is no cap on how much they can charge per hour, hence the $90-an-hour rates.
If every eligible student asked for tutoring, the districts wouldn't be able to afford it, said Matthew Mohs, St. Paul's director of Title I programs, which are aimed at low-income students.
Last year in Minneapolis, for example, only 2,219 of the 14,700 students who were eligible for tutoring services got them, even though the district spent almost all of the $4.6 million in Title I money it had reserved.
"We would've never been able to serve all 14,000 students because there's a set pot of money for [tutoring] and it isn't big enough to serve everyone," Snapp said.
Officials said the funding formula also leads to another problem: Research shows students need about 40 to 50 hours of tutoring for it to have any effect. When some companies charge $90 an hour, with a $1,700 per student limit, that equals 18 hours of tutoring.
District officials say that leads to lackluster results, which adds to the litany of frustrations for administrators who say that No Child Left Behind policies can oftentimes stifle, rather than encourage, education reform.
"I think this is one of the more flawed elements of [No Child Left Behind]," said Mohs. "I think that the whole concept and model of [these support services] was flawed from the get-go.
"When there's an expenditure of that size and you're forced to do it and there's not a whole lot of benefit for the students, you start to have a lot of questions about what other alternatives would be available to best serve our kids."
In addition to requiring transfers and tutoring, No Child Left Behind imposes escalating penalties on underperforming schools, going so far as to force them to replace programs and staff. The Obama administration said last week that it would offer states a waiver from key provisions of the law if they commit to such reforms as revamping low-performing schools and adopting evaluation standards for principals and teachers.
Minnesota plans to apply for a waiver in the first round of applications due Nov. 14.
Daarel Burnette II • 651-735-1695 Twitter: @DaarelStrib