With all the talk of New Jersey and other states seeking waivers from the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, one result could be an end to the growing reliance on outside tutoring firms for students in the lowest-performing schools.
In the last available count, more than 23,000 New Jersey students in 2009-2010 availed themselves of the free after-school tutoring that NCLB requires schools to offer if they fall short of achievement requirements.
Free tutoring is not the only option, although it is by far the most popular. Students are also allowed to transfer to higher-performing schools in their districts.
Those receiving tutoring accounted for about 14 percent of all eligible students, but they were spread across more than 120 districts, according to the state's data. These ranged from Franklin Township, where one student was provided "supplemental education services" (SES), to some 3,000 students in Newark schools.
The actual tutoring is done by nearly 130 firms approved by the state -- large and small, non- and for-profit -- all of which jockey for an average of $2,000 per student in public funds through advertising, word of mouth and "SES provider fairs." In 2009-10, the market segment amounted to $33 million.
But after a decade, the SES program may end soon in New Jersey. The Christie administration plans to apply for a waiver from the NCLB and all its strictures, including SES.
If the waiver is granted, New Jersey would be able to put the federal funds earmarked for SES toward other reforms, a move that acting education commissioner Chris Cerf said he'd be inclined to do.
He said a longer school day could be included, but differently structured than SES, which he said suffered from a "Oklahoma land-rush mentality" of unproven providers entering the market that in some districts can draw as much as $4,000 per student.
"The best you can say is the SES has been a very mixed bag," he said yesterday. "There are very few outcome studies that say it has made a difference, with some of them very good but some clearly fly by night."
Other critics nationwide have concurred that there hasn't been much independent research in the effectiveness of the SES programs. About 600,000 students across the country took advantage of the SES option this year by some estimates, costing as much as $800 million.
Some advocates in state have also questioned if districts did enough to even alert parents to the option, or if SES programs themselves did enough to accommodate student needs. A handful of districts created their own SES programs, and others allowed private providers to work within the schools.
"Districts have started to do a much better job, as the state started to harass them over their efforts," said Debra Jennings, co-director of the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network in Newark. "The numbers (of participants) was so low in the beginning that state really came down on them."
Nevertheless, SES has been by far the most-used aspect of NCLB since the law’s inception in 2002, far outpacing the second option available to districts, to allow students to transfer to other, higher-performing schools within their borders.
In 2009-10, just 702 students chose to transfer, less than 1 percent of those eligible, according to the state. Often it was blamed on the lack of space in other district schools, the parents' reluctance, or in the case of smaller districts, the lack of any other school to which a student could transfer.
Cerf said he's actually more intrigued with the transfer option, but recognized it was little used. Still, he said the state's new accountability system being proposed to the federal government could include its own transfer option for its very lowest-performing schools.
"We generally believe in giving families more options, but I need to look into that more," he said. "I don't rule it out at all."
The state is in the process of developing its waiver application, with the first deadline for mid-November. In that application, the state will have to lay out its own accountability system to replace NCLB, with specific interventions for the lowest-performing schools and those with the widest disparities in achievement for minority, low-income, and special needs students.
Cerf said that work is ongoing, and making the November deadline will be tight. His office yesterday put out a call for public input to go along with the application.
"We are still shooting for it, but it will be a daunting, daunting job," he said.