Villarreal Wants State to Study Quality of Federally Funded Tutors


State Rep. Mike Villarreal
State Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio)

The federal No Child Left Behind law’s subsidies for afterschool tutors have created a notoriously murky industry, full of barely regulated tutoring companies whose quality and prices vary wildly.

The Texas Education Agency announced last month it was cracking down on bogus tutoring firms, but as long as a tutor’s on the approved list, schools can’t play favorites, or tell parents which to pick. Armed with only the tutors’ promotional materials, it’s hard for parents to know they’re making a smart choice.

State Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio) wants the state to give parents more information about those tutors—and today he tried to sell his idea to the House Public Education Committee.

His House Bill 753 would require the TEA to give parents research on what makes a tutor effective, including how many hours of tutoring a student usually needs before any benefit registers in test scores. (Students get federal funding for tutoring if their school has missed federal testing targets for three or more years.)

Villarreal told the committee that, on average, students need more than 40 hours of tutoring to see real improvement, but the federal funding only covers a few hours of instruction from the most expensive tutors. Villarreal said TEA should evaluate tutors’ prices and effectiveness, and make the information available to parents.

The bill’s fiscal note says that TEA doesn’t have that research today, and would probably have to contract out to get it.

But University of Texas researcher Carolyn Heinrich, who has been following tutoring programs across the country for the last seven years, was at the hearing. (The Observer wrote about her work in October.) She says the time tutors spend with a student is the most important measure of all.

Heinrich was on hand for today’s hearing, too. She told lawmakers that Dallas ISD had some of the most expensive tutoring she saw, at more than $157 per hour. When a child who qualifies in Dallas receives $1,400, they won’t even get 10 hours of tutoring, Heinrich said.

“School districts are saying the federal government is making us pay these bills, but the child isn’t benefiting,” Heinrich said. “We’re seeing very few positive impacts at all,”

On top of that, she said, Texas school districts can’t give parents detailed information about the effectiveness of tutors on TEA’s list today. Heinrich suggested that TEA might adapt the methodology she used in her research to evaluate vendors and provide the information to parents. Another idea TEA might consider, she said, is a system to rank tutors on TEA’s list.

State Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) seemed skeptical of that plan. “The ranking, are there states that actually do that?” he asked.

After an awkward silence, Heinrich said she didn’t believe any state has assembled a ranking of tutors. She said at the very least, though, parents should get to see research on the providers.

The point, Villarreal said, was to bring a little order to the chaotic tutoring realm.

“How do we help parents make informed decisions in selecting providers?” Villarreal asked the committee. “How can we clean up our list and remove providers who have defrauded our districts hundreds of thousands of dollars?”

One San Antonio school employee recalled several students at her school who’d been swindled out of tutoring—a tutoring company had promised them a tablet, and had them sign blank forms to document tutoring hours they never got. She said the company, which also operates in Dallas ISD, has yet to be taken off of TEA’s vendor list.

TEA General Counsel David Anderson said he doesn’t see a problem with TEA sharing research on tutors’ effectiveness, but it might be year-old data by the time it reached parents. Still, he said the agency can’t take providers off the list because of the rates they charge or the results they get (or don’t get)—fraud is about the only thing that can get a tutor taken off the list.

“It’s a hard thing to police,” he said.


This post has been updated to reflect that Carolyn Heinrich’s testimony did not include a suggestion that TEA use her own research.