HOUSTON -- A multi-million dollar waste. That’s how some local educators are describing a federally-funded tutoring program for kids. They say the big government bucks behind it all has attracted big business, and in the process, they say students are being left behind.
Take Benavidez Elementary School in the Houston Independent School District. Because of its poor academic performance two years in a row, the No Child Left Behind Act requires HISD to offer private tutoring to students. It’s all paid for with tax dollars, but what is your money really buying?
“My son didn’t learn anything,” said Kenia Martinez in Spanish.
Her son, 11-year-old Gerson, signed up with the largest tutoring program in Texas, Tutors with Computers. Their experience was not a good one.
"They didn't come to the house, they didn't teach him anything," Martinez said.
Instead, the mother said that business gave her son a cell phone to call his so-called tutor, which was not a live person, but instead an automated recording that Gerson found frustrating.
“It keeps on repeating the same questions. I'd be on it like 30 minutes, and then it keeps on repeating the same questions," he said.
And the charge for all of this? Tutors with Computers earned a whopping $92 an hour.
"I think it's robbery what's happening with these kids," Kenia Martinez said.
And what does Tutors With Computers bill the entire Houston Independent School District?
"Roughly $300,000 a month,” said HISD spokesperson Jason Spencer.
Spencer said that’s only one company. Add it up with all the others and he said the result is a pricey program that produces few results.
“(It’s) a pattern of really, ineffectiveness and a waste of taxpayer money,” Spencer said.
And worse, Spencer said, getting rid of that waste is difficult, because once a company gets on the state-approved list, the rules are clear.
"We're required to do business with that company. We have to pay the invoices,” Spencer said.
And there's something else that troubles school district: the competition by the companies to recruit kids. For example, HISD recently filed a complaint with the Texas Education Agency, alleging that a sales rep from Tutors with Computers handed out promotional material to kids that the district hadn’t been allowed to review. However, in that same complaint HISD also mentioned that students were promised a free iPad if they signed up with the company.
"I don't think they should be used as a lure," said HISD Board President Anna Eastman. "My fear and others fear that we've just had another cottage industry develop to make money at the expense of children."
And it's a lot of money across the Texas tutoring industry -- more than $22 million for the 202-2013 school year. But, does anyone track if the program works?
We asked Gene Acuna, the spokesman for the Texas Education Agency:
I-Team: Does the state do anything in terms of checking test scores?
Acuna: "I'm not sure there's enough time in the day, in the month, in the year to do that."
But Tutors with Computers says it already does that.
The company declined to go on camera, but in a statement claimed an HISD report showed students had "significant" improvement in English, math and science test scores. The company offered to back up its program with a “Pay for Results” guarantee -- if a student achievement doesn't improve, it doesn’t get paid. Also, Tutors With Computers said providing cell phones and iPads are not lures to entice students, but rather learning tools to facilitate tutoring instruction.
But HISD disputes the company’s claims of success, saying students showed roughly the same average improvement on standardized tests as other tutoring companies doing business in the district.
HISD has launched its own tutoring program paid for with private donations. It’s called Apollo, and the instruction is live an engaged, not over the phone.
"It takes hard work, it takes students sitting down privately with an actual person, going over these lessons day after day,” Spencer said.