The first alarm sounded last fall, when a frustrated administrator in the Anoka-Hennepin School District sent an e-mail blast to his counterparts at 10 other districts. He wanted to know whether anyone else was having trouble with a Texas company called 1 to 1 Tutor.
The answer: Who wasn't?
In Minneapolis, school officials were seething over an incident in which a 1 to 1 representative pretended to be a district employee to obtain a competitors' enrollment forms. In Rochester, a parent complained that 1 to 1 "has been the tutoring company from hell!" In St. Paul, officials reported they were "suspicious about some of their activity."
By the end of February, two of the districts had fired 1 to 1. Looking back, local administrators say, the state never should have forced them to deal with the company, which flunked the application process when it first sought state approval last spring to provide tutoring.
But the Minnesota Department of Education's decision to bypass the rules and let 1 to 1 into the market reflects the state's easygoing approach to regulating the government's after-school tutoring program. Schools can't bar any vendors with state approval.
Although state regulators rejected some applicants, questionable companies squeaked through despite evidence of potential problems, records show. Some of those companies were later caught submitting fake invoices and other falsified documents. Others caused long delays in the start of tutoring, prompting hundreds of students to bail out of the program.
"They should not have opened the door to so many providers," said Kelli Abar, co-owner of seven Sylvan Learning offices in the Twin Cities, who helped grade applications for the state two years ago. "I was appalled at what some companies were providing" in their applications.
Officials with the Minnesota Education Department concede that state regulators have done a poor job managing the program. But Charlene Briner, the department's chief of staff and communications director, maintains that "perfect reporting and perfect compliance" would not have made a difference because the tutoring program "is not working."
Briner said the department has no plans to address shortcomings because Minnesota obtained a federal waiver releasing local districts from mandatory participation in the tutoring program.
State loophole helped 1 to 1
On paper, at least, it isn't easy to qualify as a tutoring vendor. Applications are typically graded by a panel of three education experts, usually a school district administrator, a tutoring company executive and a member of the state Education Department. To pass, applicants must score at least 70 out of 100 points.
But panelists tend to give applicants the benefit of the doubt, records show. At least 10 companies were approved after panelists found little or no research to support key parts of the applicants' tutoring programs. In other cases, applicants were faulted for their hiring practices. One passed with a score of 70 despite wobbly financial projections that made its success "unlikely," according to the panel's report.
24 Hours Tutoring received approval even though parts of its application contradicted itself and "there is no mention of capacity to serve students," records show. Another warning sign: Unlike all other online providers in Minnesota, 24 Hours has no corporate website, even though it supposedly conducts all tutoring over the Internet.
24 Hours was subsequently fired by two school districts in Minnesota for various problems, including failing to provide promised equipment and submitting falsified records. A company spokesman declined to answer questions about the company or the contract disputes.
Even a failing grade from the panel isn't final.
Through a little-known process that operates with no written rules and no documentation, some failed applicants are granted a second look by state officials who are entitled to review applications and revise scores, according to department spokesman Keith Hovis.
Last year, three companies benefitted from the loophole, including 1 to 1, which initially earned a score of 66 on its application, records show.
Hovis said there are no specific criteria for granting such administrative approvals, but he said it typically happens for companies whose scores fall on the " bubble." The other two vendors who benefited from the process in 2011 received initial scores of 63 and 64, records show.
Hovis was unable to say how many failed applicants received administrative approvals in other years.
The loophole bothers school district officials, who say they are forced to deal with the mess that 1 to 1 and other troubled vendors have created.
Jon Peterson, who oversaw the tutoring program in Minneapolis for three years, said he couldn't believe it when he saw a questionable company appear on the state's approved vendor list several months after his three-member panel flunked it in 2010.
"I was not happy," Peterson said. "I felt like I was part of a process that was totally invalidated."
1 to 1 executive I.D. Jegede, a regional general manager who oversees Minnesota and four other Midwestern states, said he was unaware of the company's application problems.
Since 1 to 1 was founded in 2006, he said, the company has been approved to provide government-funded tutoring in 26 states. It has not been rejected anywhere, Jegede said. This year, 1 to 1 will provide tutoring services to about 14,000 students, up from about 1,000 students in 2009, Jegede said.
"We have a quality product," Jegede said. "Our success speaks for itself."
Tough start in Minnesota
In Minnesota, few tutoring companies have grown so quickly or stumbled as badly.
Although 1 to 1 became one of the state's most popular providers of government-funded tutoring, the company was kicked out of Minneapolis and St. Paul in its first year, while Rochester officials acted to discontinue the contract after multiple complaints, records show.
Minneapolis severed its relationship with 1 to 1 over alleged marketing abuses, including improperly soliciting clients on school grounds and tampering with enrollment forms. Jegede did not dispute the allegations but said the company doesn't think it received a full opportunity to fix the situation.
The company faced similar problems in Michigan, where 1 to 1 was placed on probation for submitting 531 "altered" student enrollment forms in Detroit last year.
In May, while the company was still on probation, Michigan barred 1 to 1 from the program for two years after regulators discovered the company switched to an instructional model already rejected by the state.
In Rochester, a parent complained that her daughter could not understand the company's tutors in India, and she said company representatives refused to switch her to a "native English" speaker. Similar complaints about accents and communication issues were filed in other districts.
Jegede acknowledged that about half of the company's tutors are in India, but he said most students quickly adjust.
"People who are born [in Minnesota] may have trouble understanding a Brooklyn accent or a Southern accent, so I submit that if there were tutors from Georgia they'd say the exact same thing," he said.
In St. Paul, dozens of parents were unhappy with how long it took the company to start tutoring their children. After the company did not fix the problems by a Jan. 4 deadline, officials transferred those students to other companies and canceled 1 to 1's contract.
Jegede acknowledged widespread problems in Minnesota, but he said that is common in any "start-up" situation.
He said district administrators in Minneapolis and St. Paul seemed to be "looking for any opportunity to pull the plug."
"It was unfortunate," Jegede said. "I don't think we were given an opportunity to really provide service the way we'd want to."
School officials see it differently.
"I don't care that you have start-up problems," said Matthew Mohs, executive director of Title 1 programs for St. Paul Public Schools.
"You are the one that went into this business. And we are paying you extremely good money to do it. So do your job or don't do it in our district."
Jeffrey Meitrodt • (612) 673-4132