“Faking the Grade: How Texas Spent Millions On Ineffective Tutoring For Poor Students”

Morgan Smith
Texas Tribune
October 06, 2013

Morgan Smith’s Faking the Grade series examined the fate of millions in federal dollars Texas directed to private tutoring for the state’s poorest students under a No Child Left Behind program. In four stories, the Texas Tribune presented a comprehensive look at the policy’s consequences, the politics that drove it and the influence of the companies that profited most from it.

Smith spent three months reporting and writing the series, which was published in October. As a result of more than 60 public information requests filed with state agencies and school districts, she gathered records documenting years of rampant misuse, few academic results and state officials who repeatedly claimed they had no authority to intervene. She built a narrative around those records with dozens of interviews with former tutoring company employees, parents, educators, policy experts, state officials, lawmakers and industry lobbyists.

What she found was that despite increasingly widespread complaints about business practices from parents and school districts, Texas officials had allowed private tutoring companies receiving federal subsidies to operate virtually unchecked in the state. Very little vetting happened to determine which companies ended up on the state’s approved list — which until 2012 included a company using Scientology-based instruction — and state officials rarely took action to remove chronically misbehaving companies from that list.

The series also explored the lobbying efforts to preserve public funding for tutoring. Morgan profiled the largest tutoring provider in the state, exposing the powerful political ties it has cultivated both in Washington and Austin, where it has spent at least $240,000 on lobbying teams since 2011. She also discovered that the company’s founder, who has made more than $140,000 in political donations to Texas elected officials, had served on a 2013 state advisory committee that developed recommendations for the school accountability system. The company’s own advisory committee included former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, who removed a reference to his involvement from the company’s website when contacted by the Tribune.

In the midst of the Texas Tribune investigation, Texas decided to end the tutoring program for the upcoming school year. Since obtaining a federal NCLB waiver, state officials have also decided not to implement a similar policy at the state level. The tutoring company most prominently featured in the stories has discontinued operations in Texas.

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LINK to series online

Submitted by Emily Ramshaw.