Students before districts

Unfortunately, school districts, preferring to decide for themselves where our tax dollars are spent, have started pushing for waivers that would eliminate this option for parents and families. The waivers would cut off support from over 650,000 under-served children from their tutoring programs. Worse yet, the Department of Education has given signals that it might agree to those requests.

There is little doubt that tutoring works. After all, wealthy, suburban parents have been getting it for their children for years. And there is little doubt that Supplemental Educations Services (SES) – the official name for these tutoring programs – have a large, positive effect on student achievement. According to a Department of Education study released just last month, “SES participation was associated with statistically significant achievement gains in both mathematics and reading.”

Similarly, there is little doubt about who enrolls in these programs and who receives their benefits. According to the Department of Education study, the vast majority of students who participated in the program were under-served minorities.

These tutoring programs do not cost the taxpayer more money. Rather, they require failing schools to share the money they already receive with the parents selecting from a set state-approved programs that are proven to work.

So SES provides free tutoring that is demonstrably effective to the under-served students who need it most desperately, at no extra cost to the taxpayer. Republicans and Democrats like us share common ground on this issue. Why is there even a discussion about granting waivers that would eliminate this program? 

Here’s the answer we heard when we were on Capitol Hill recently: school districts and the organizations that represent them don’t like the program. School districts have a vested interest in undoing the SES program. NCLB tells the districts that they parents should have a say in who provides their children’s instruction. They would rather spend it on their pet programs and other initiatives that may or may not have any impact on educational outcomes or the specific needs and challenges of low income children and families served by SES.” After all, $6,400 spent on SES is $6,400 less to spend on school board retreats in Atlantic City, as the Irvington County, New Jersey school district famously did.

Furthermore, SES programs, with their proven track records, show up many of the weakest school districts. They succeed where those districts chronically fail and parents take note. If success is possible with their children, and the SES program succeeds where these administrators fail, it begs the question as to whether someone else should be responsible for their children’s welfare.

School districts are pushing for waivers for the same reason any other interest group pushes Congress and the Administration – they are trying to end a program that makes them look bad and takes “their” money out of their hands. Yet ultimately, isn’t it the parents’ money to spend?

Were there no victims of these efforts, organizations that have come out against the waivers could stomach this sort of self-interest. There are victims, though, and they are the worst kind of victims. They are poor children, already facing an uphill fight to get the math and writing skills they will need to even complete high school, let alone to compete in a global economy.

SES programs work, and they work for the students who need them most. They raise student achievement, and give students in chronically failing districts a fighting chance for a better life. At their most elemental level, they allow more nine-year-olds to proclaim that they are proud of themselves. If we as a nation put the desires of self-interested school district administrators above the needs of that nine-year-old boy, then the failure lies with us.

T. Willard Fair is President of the Urban League of Greater Miami, Inc. and former Chairman of the Florida State Board of Education. Lisa Keegan is former Spokesperson for John McCain for President and founder of the Education Breakthrough Network. Sonia Rodriguez is Coordinator of Education Initiatives for the United Farmworkers of America.