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Let Education Reform Blossom in New York

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Just weeks after President Obama awarded New York State a reform-friendly waiver to onerous federal "No Child Left Behind" education rules, for-profit education firms are threatening to strangle the new reforms in the crib.

At issue is the federal Supplemental Education Services (SES) program, which currently diverts hundreds of millions of federal Title 1 dollars from school districts to outside tutoring providers. A few of these outside groups do good work. But multiple reports and investigations of the SES program have shown bloated budgets, profiteering and corruption. An evaluation of the implementation of SES revealed that providers were providing, on average, only 45 hours of services to these high-need students. And national evaluations sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education's Institute for Education Sciences, most recently by the leading educational evaluation firm Mathematica Policy Research, have found that SES has little to no impact on raising student achievement. Current SES programs are often poorly coordinated with school-day instruction, and success is often driven more by marketing budgets than impact on students. New York can put these funds to better use.

On May 29, New York State became one of 19 states granted a waiver by the federal Department of Education to provide greater flexibility in the use of federal dollars in exchange for pursuing rigorous reforms that have a track record of helping students learn more. An important provision of the waiver allows states and schools more flexibility in using Title 1 money -- including the more than $200 million now set aside for SES providers annually. Instead of paying for special interest programs, these Title I dollars should support proven reforms, such as a longer learning day for low-income students; community school models that provide school-based early childhood programs, health care and social services to help support student achievement; blended learning programs that utilize the best educational software; and better extra-curricular activities such as apprenticeships with professional scientists and engineers.

New York State Education Commissioner John King and reform-minded district leaders have already begun to craft strategies for steering this SES money toward proven interventions to support students and schools. Districts could make savvy choices and work with providers who have a track record of success, including the best of current SES providers. But even before these reforms have taken hold, a group of for-profit SES providers and their lobbyists have been working back-channels in the state Senate and Assembly to preserve the status quo and keep the millions of dollars now going to these SES providers, regardless of their effectiveness. Comptroller Lu found that one New York SES provider collected $860,000 for tutoring students who never showed up.

Our organizations -- Citizen Schools and The Children's Aid Society (CAS) -- and dozens of other non-profit educational support organizations currently work closely with needy schools across New York City and State to expand the learning day and to erase opportunity and achievement gaps. Students in the CAS community schools engage in quality, supervised experiences that enhance their learning and promote participation in the life of the wider community. Additional program offerings, such as poetry clubs and chess teams, build self-confidence and support worthy career aspirations, besides reinforcing classroom gains. Students at Citizen Schools get extra help with writing and math, plus enroll in four apprenticeships a year taught by leading professionals from Google, AOL, Ernst & Young and other successful firms. Students in Citizen Schools and CAS and similar programs benefit from an extra 300 to 500 hours of learning per year -- not 45 hours as in the average SES program. Rigorous evaluations of our programs have indicated significant short and long-term academic and social gains.

After years of rising costs, New York and other states now face a period of flat or declining investment in education. In this climate, it is critical that every dollar -- whether local, state, or federal -- is steered toward effective programs, a priority held by Education Commissioner King.

We urge the New York State legislature and Governor Cuomo to let reform blossom in New York. If the SES status quo is preserved in a back-room deal, the hard-won flexibility offered through the No Child Left Behind waiver will be at risk, the for-profit SES special interest will win, and children will lose out on proven and cost-effective reforms to improve their schools.

Richard R. Buery, President and CEO, The Children's Aid Society

Nitzan Pelman, Executive Director, Citizen Schools New York