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Let city control tutoring Williams deserves federal hearing on program affecting his students

The Buffalo Public School District's struggle to improve student performance and redesign the educational system could gain some momentum with tighter district control over federally funded after-school tutoring, but it faces a hurdle: it's not yet eligible. School Superintendent James A. Williams is working to change that, and his effort deserves support.

The system currently is completing an application for a waiver of a rule that keeps systems designated as "districts in need of improvement" from running such tutoring programs directly. Buffalo's tutoring programs now are run by 17 state-licensed providers, from the Boys and Girls Club of Buffalo and the African-American Cultural Center to Huntington Learning Centers and Princeton Review. An earlier waiver request was denied -- according to Williams, after pressure from tutoring contractors' lobbying groups -- but the process has been reopened.

Letting the Buffalo School District take command of the tutoring programs offered to its students could bring the teaching more in line with district goals and standards, and keep the children in schools instead of moving them to community centers and other locations at the end of the school day.

But it also could help the city system capitalize on a benefit from a key gain in a recently signed contract with school engineers and custodians. That pact makes after-school tutoring in school buildings possible, without the overtime for after-school programs that city school officials traditionally had to pay.

Engineers and custodians gave the district an hour and a half longer school day with no overtime, which means these tutoring programs now can be held in school buildings without additional costs for a cash-strapped school district. This is a long-awaited victory for the district and students. Why not take advantage of the opportunity?

By allowing the district a waiver, the school day can be extended and the work of educating students not only continued but meshed more closely with the district's three-year plan.

Currently, low-income students from 24 low-performing Buffalo schools are eligible for up to $1,863 a year in tutoring. That tutoring was outsourced to other agencies for a reason. In 2001, when tutoring started under a program called Supplemental Education Services, as part of the No Child Left Behind Act, school districts in need of improvement were deemed unable to improve themselves.

Federal education officials revisited the law when Williams first came to Buffalo in 2005, allowing schools in need of improvement to request a waiver and operate their own supplemental programs. Williams made that request, but Buffalo -- unlike New York, Chicago, Memphis and Boston -- was not selected.

Because Williams complained of lobbyist pressure and tenaciously pursued the matter, the district now has a new application that it is in the process of completing. Federal education officials are planning a visit to Buffalo in late February on another issue, and the superintendent has indicated that he is planning a breakfast to discuss the waiver.

Williams wants vendors to write proposals based on the district's standards, plans and state-driven accountability system. He can't demand that while frozen out of any control over the tutoring programs. Now that the Buffalo district has changed, with new leadership aggressively targeting improvements in student performance, the federal government has more reason to allow district control. Next month, Williams' visitors should consider just that.

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