Several million dollars in federal money is being wasted each year on after-school tutoring for Buffalo students that is producing no real benefits, Superintendent James A. Williams charged.
"I think this is totally a waste of money," Williams said. "This is another mandate out of Washington, D.C., that's not working for kids."
Williams is asking federal education officials to grant a waiver that would allow him to scrap the federal rules and let him determine who does the tutoring and where the services are provided, as well as make sure the extra help directly supports district efforts to raise student test scores.
The tutoring program is a key element of the No Child Left Behind Act, but Williams says it has been a failure here since it was launched in 2001.
Under the program -- called Supplemental Education Services -- low-income students from 24 low-performing Buffalo schools are eligible for up to $1,863 a year in tutoring from any of 17 local providers licensed by the state. Those range from the Boys & Girls Club of Buffalo and the African-American Cultural Center to the Huntington Learning Centers and Princeton Review.
More than 3,800 Buffalo pupils took part last year, and the total cost was $3.5 million. So far this school year, 2,691 students have enrolled.
The ramifications of Williams' efforts go beyond educational benefits, since many community centers have come to rely heavily on revenue from the tutoring programs.
But Williams and Allison Turley, the school system's director of federal programs, said the program is full of serious flaws. For example:
* The school district has little control over curriculum at the tutoring sites, and what is being taught is not coordinated with the district's three-year plan to raise student achievement. "I'm held accountable for test results, but they don't have to use the same tests we use," Williams said.
* Transportation is a major problem, since pupils must get from their schools to their tutoring sites on their own, and then home.
* Assessment and monitoring of the tutoring program are nearly non-existent, since No Child Left Behind provides no funds to oversee it.
Williams is seeking permission from the U.S. Department of Education to contract directly with the tutoring programs, to license just three or four rather than 17, to require them to operate directly out of city school buildings and to make sure the material they teach is closely aligned with what students learn during the regular school day.
Similar waivers have been granted to Chicago, New York City, Boston and Memphis, Tenn., Williams said.
A Department of Education spokeswoman said staff members will meet here with Williams next month and "use that opportunity to listen carefully to his suggestions and concerns."
In Buffalo, the biggest provider of tutoring is Huntington Learning Centers, which works with 1,016 students at seven community centers in the city and -- in a few cases -- at its five suburban locations.
Karen Lalley, Huntington's regional director for No Child Left Behind programs, said students are benefiting from the program and, in many cases, receive tutoring at community centers that are closer to their homes than their schools.
But Lalley said Williams' plan could prompt closer cooperation and alignment between schools and tutoring providers.
"If he gets a waiver, I think we could help make something good out of it," she said. "He's an ideas man. If anybody can make it happen, I'm sure he can."