Florida tutoring firms accused of fraud

From the Sun Sentinel, By Marc Freeman, Sun Sentinel

It’s a nearly $1 billion-a-year federal program aimed at helping the poorest of kids achieve academic dreams, but in South Florida those lofty ideals have been tarnished by lax accountability, spotty oversight and accusations of fraud.

In the past nine months alone, three South Florida tutoring firms have been accused of trying to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money for services they never provided to children.

More than 10,000 Broward and Palm Beach county children are expected to sign up for afterschool lessons as part of Supplemental Educational Services, a 10-year-old program whose merit is disputed by the Obama administration.

Though many of the 378 state-approved private tutoring services do provide struggling students with the help they promise, educators say the fraud allegations cast doubt on the program overall and how it’s managed.

“It’s so difficult for oversight,” said Broward School Board member Robin Bartleman, noting how there are far more tutoring firms than district employees to check them. “There is limited accountability over these private providers taking federal tax dollars.”

‘Excellent’ firms accused

Take the case of Glades Extreme Tutoring in western Palm Beach County. Its leaders were arrested on charges of grand theft and organized scheme to defraud in March, after police said the school district paid more than $40,000 for tutoring that never happened.

Despite those allegations, the state Department of Education last month gave Glades Extreme an “excellent” performance rating.

Asked how this was possible, state officials said the charges against the firm are still in the courts, and that the company has performed well in other counties.

“We have to wait for the justice system to play out,” said Latrell Edwards, the state Department of Education’s federal programs bureau chief.

Yet when Glades Extreme submitted an application to participate in the tutoring program this fall, the department declared the firm ineligible for two school years. It followed a procedural rule for when an “investigation reveals that a school district has been fraudulently invoiced,” spokewoman Jamie Mongiovi said.

Last year, the state gave an excellent score to a Miami-Dade based tutoring firm named Divine Sports, Inc., for performance in the 2010-11 school year. At the same time, the State Attorney’s Office, Miami-Dade public schools and the U.S. Department of Education were investigating the company.

In November, authorities charged company operator Erika Raquel Robinson and Divine Sports with 47 felonies for allegedly carrying out “fraudulent billing schemes” at two high schools and one elementary school during the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years.

Miami-Dade Public Schools Inspector General Christopher Mazzella said the firm had submitted attendance sheets containing faked initials and signatures of students and tutors. Students who did show up for some sessions told investigators they played around on a computer website rather than getting help with their school work, Mazzella said in an arrest affidavit.

“Divine Sports billed for tutoring phantom students, overbilled for actual students, and submitted false documentation as proof of services rendered,” Mazzella’s office said in a statement. The office warned more South Florida tutoring companies are being investigated for fraud.

Larry Handfield, attorney for Robinson and Divine Sports, told the Sun Sentinel that he and his clients could not comment on charges. State records show Divine Sports remains an active corporation, but Handfield said it is not currently teaching students. Robinson could not be reached for comment despite attempts by phone.

Authorities say Divine Sports collected nearly $1 million during the 2009-10 school year. An arrest affidavit for the company and Robinson alleged fraudulent billings of at least $134,000 during the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years. The company billed the district for more than $470,000 in 2010-11, but those payments were withheld because of the criminal investigation, Mazzella’s office told the school board in a memo.

No firms have been charged in Broward. But in April, the Broward School Board revoked a contract with tutoring company Touchdown Learning.

This followed a recommendation from school district administrators who said they discovered that the Miami-based firm allegedly faked the signatures of 11 elementary school students and sought payment for tutoring of other children that never took place. The school’s identity was not revealed.

District officials said they did not turn the case over to law enforcement because no money was actually spent. The district assigned $36,180 worth of tutoring services for 26 students to another provider.

“People will find ways to get around loopholes and it’s our job to safeguard the federal funds and the district’s reputation as much as possible,” said Luwando L. Wright-Hines, a Broward schools administrator who oversees the program.

Widespread reports of fraud

The allegations in Florida mirror experiences in other states that authorities say may have cost taxpayers millions. The most notorious case has occurred in New York, where federal authorities in May filed a civil fraud lawsuit against The Princeton Review, Inc., an educational services firm not connected with the Ivy League university.

The government charged Princeton Review with receiving millions of dollars in federal funds for tutoring services that it did not provide from 2006 to 2010.

“As alleged, the company and certain of its employees forged student signatures, falsified sign-in sheets, and provided false certifications in order to deceitfully profit from a well-meaning program,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said.

In a statement responding to the suit, Princeton Review said, “We are working closely with the U.S. Attorney’s office to resolve this matter expeditiously.”

Terry Pitchford, who oversees the tutoring program for Palm Beach County schools, said in recent years she’s witnessed numerous tutors trying all sorts of improper payment grabs, such as a tutor charging the district $64 an hour to teach his own kids at home, and companies billing for sessions at libraries during hours when the library was not open. And those are just the misdeeds they’ve been fortunate to find.

The case against Glades Extreme Tutoring began in February 2011 with a discovery that the firm had received payment for some students who reportedly did not attend the program.

Palm Beach County School District police began an investigation that led to the March arrest of firm president Felisia Hill.

The district paid more than $40,000 for tutoring of 47 children who either didn’t get tutored or got less tutoring than shown on billing paperwork, according to police. During the investigation, the district withheld payments to Glades Extreme of another $21,612.

Hill, a Pahokee city commissioner and former elementary school teacher, could not be reached despite messages and calls left on her phone and with the city commission office. Johnny McCray, Hill’s Pompano Beach-based attorney, said she is fighting the charges.

“My client steadfastly and adamantly denies the allegations,” McCray said.

South Florida school district officials say they want to watch companies more closely, but they can’t without state or federal money allocated to hire more monitors.

Wright-Hines, the Broward district’s manager for the program, says school-based “facilitators” look in regularly on sessions that take place at schools, but make only random checks of tutoring that takes place off school grounds.

“It is very hard for us to know what is going on and incredibly difficult for us to opine to parents as to what is best for their kids,” Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told Congress in September.

Three years ago, Florida officials created a ratings system (excellent, satisfactory, unsatisfactory) to try to help parents decide which company to select to tutor their children. Students attending eligible schools — those with a majority of low-income families — get a credit for about $1,100 in tutoring. At the $70 maximum rate per hour that’s about 16 hours.

But Pitchford says parents may not realize that the state ratings are based mostly on “self reporting” from the providers, including scores of tests conducted by the firms themselves in most cases.

Rating benchmarks are low: Providers are rated “satisfactory” even if they have scored just 50 percent on a performance scale covering student learning, program attendance and survey results. “Excellent” ratings start at 80 percent, and parents are not shown the exact percentages

Adam Potts, legislative affairs director for the state Department of Education, said officials plan to discuss ways to improve the rating system, possibly in new legislation next year.

Pitchford says another problem is that school districts and parents are typically unaware if tutoring companies have faced accusations of poor performance elsewhere, and that schools are obligated to contract with them if they are approved by the state.

For example, in April, an auditor hired by to the Dallas (Texas) Independent School District reported to the school board there that two Miami Lakes-based tutoring firms, Cool Kids Learn and Next Level Educational Programs, had improperly collected $143,538 by submitting paperwork with forged signatures and for sessions that never happened.

John Copeland, chairman of both firms, said the charges outlined by the accounting firm Weaver are “hollow” and the companies are exploring a formal response.

Florida has authorized both companies to tutor students again this school year. They are among 139 firms approved to do business in Palm Beach County and 175 firms seeking student clients in Broward.

Feds bash program, Florida keeps it

Skepticism about the service starts at the top: U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has expressed frustration that school districts are stuck doing business with a “cottage industry of tutoring companies” without a proven record of performance.

In May, Duncan’s department released a study that clashed with some previous analyses of the program’s effectiveness. The conclusion, reached after looking at students in grades three to eight in six large urban school districts, including Palm Beach Beach County, was devastating. The kids got about 21 hours of tutoring but it had “no statistically significant impact” on their reading or math skills, the study said.

“We pretty much now know we weren’t getting the bang for the buck,” Pitchford said. “There was no impact, or change, for those kids.”

Supplemental Educational Services was created by the 2001 No Child Left Behind law, the landmark federal education act that set sweeping standards for student achievement and sanctions for schools that failed to make the grade.

One of the major components of the law called for parents to be given choices such as getting their children out of struggling schools or into the free tutoring services. The tutoring program has grown each year in students and spending, which totaled nearly $1 billion in 2010-11.

But the Obama administration last year began inviting states to seek waivers from these requirements in favor of “next-generation education reforms that go far beyond No Child Left Behind’s rigid, top-down prescriptions.”

Florida applied for and was granted this permission, along with 32 other states. But then-state Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson helped persuade lawmakers to keep the tutoring program alive for at least one more school year so students could “get the extra help they need to be successful in school.”

Duncan ripped Florida for passing up an opportunity to use about $100 million in federal money to pay for other things, and specifically cited Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie’s desire to lengthen the school day and give students better preparation for college and careers.

“I find it ironic that Washington is offering flexibility but Tallahassee is taking it away,” Duncan said in a May speech to Florida business leaders. “Our job is to educate children, not provide a one-size-fits-all approach that may meet the need of tutoring companies.”

Robinson responded that it was wrong to suggest “that our state and our legislators were not acting in the best interest of Florida’s children.”

Staff writer Megan O’Matz and staff researcher John Maines contributed to this report. mjfreeman@tribune.com or 561-243-6642


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