Choice. That has been George W. Bush’s mantra when it comes to education. If the best choice for parents is to send their children to private tutors, then he wants school districts to provide the cash for them to do that.

Not so fast, says the New York City Department of Education. The feds sent the city $140 million to pay private tutors to give struggling students extra help, as well as to transport those who opt to transfer from a low-performing school to a better one. Several months later, the Bloomberg administration is holding on to that money for dear life.

The new funding flows out of the No Child Left Behind Act. Signed by Bush in January 2002, the law increased the feds’ allocation of Title I money–cash earmarked for low-performing schools with a large number of low-income students–to each state by about 25 percent. With that, school districts must put 5 percent of their total Title I budget toward tutoring services, 5 percent for school transfer costs like transportation and another 10 percent to be divided between the two programs. In New York City, that allocation would come to about $126 million.

Instead, however, Department of Education budget documents show that the city has only set aside $27 million–or just under 5 percent of its Title I pot–for tutoring, and another $27 million for costs related to school transfers. Given that the school transfer program is practically stagnant so far, it is unclear how those funds will be used.

The city Department of Education would not comment for this story. But considering the fiscal crisis facing City Hall, some observers of education policy say the city’s move doesn’t surprise them. “I would guess that given the tightness of budget in school districts around the country, that what is happened in New York City is probably happening around the country,” says Bob Peterson, an editor at Rethinking Schools, a nonprofit news journal on education.

In New York, the economic picture has not been pretty. Mayor Bloomberg has calculated a $1.1 billion budget gap for this year and a $6.4 billion deficit for 2004. To trim the school system, the mayor and City Council made $360 million in cuts for the budget passed in June. In mid-November, Bloomberg proposed another $200 million slash, to come out of central administration, purchasing, district and high school administration, the teacher mentor program, and summer camps.

But creators of the federal legislation say the city’s move may be illegal. “Under the law, any portion of that 20 percent not used for one purpose must be used for the other purpose,” says David Schnittger, spokesperson for the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce, whose chair John Boehner helped draft the law. So for example, Schnittger says, school transfer money not used for transfers must go toward tutoring services.

So far, the city has not had to spend much at all on shuttling children from their local school to another following a transfer request. According to a report released by the City Council in mid-November, of the 220,000 eligible kids, as of October only 3,670 had requested transfers. Of those, just 1,507 got them.

While a spokesman for Chancellor Joel Klein told the Daily News in October that more transfers were “in the works,” there have been conflicting reports. Bruce Ellis, president of Community Advocacy for Educational Excellence, Inc., a Harlem-based parent advocacy organization, claims that Klein told a room full of Harlem residents in October that the city would not offer transfers. “I said, ‘In a district like ours, where there’s no place for people to go on the elementary level, how is it being implemented?'” says Ellis. “He said it wasn’t.”

The state Department of Education, which is responsible for making sure each school district follows the law, says it does not plan to take immediate action, but it promises to keep watch. “In this transition year, there may be unawareness of [the tutoring program] at the local level,” says James Vaughan, New York State’s Title I coordinator. He doesn’t entirely blame city education officials: With so many fiscal needs, he says, “it can be difficult budgetarily if you encumber this amount of money.”

Even if the city funded No Child fully, it would fall short of being enough to serve every eligible student–220,000 in the five boroughs, based on income and test scores.

The state will put in about $1,200 per student each year for the tutoring mandated by No Chid Left Behind, according to the state Department of Ed. Based on that figure, even if the city put the full 15 percent of its Title I cash into tutoring, only about 35 percent of eligible students would get extra help after school. At the city’s existing funding levels, that drops to about 12 percent.

While the schools chancellor plays around with the budget, these scarce services have not gotten off to a good start. As happened in many cities across the country this fall, bureaucratic delays and disorganization led New York City to extend the November 15 deadline for parents to register their kids for tutoring. Several school districts failed to send out the information needed for parents to pick the appropriate tutor until two weeks before the deadline, creating concern among parents that their kids wouldn’t get into a program.

“My son is behind and he really needs help,” says Audrey Harrison of the Bronx, whose seventh grader’s math scores are at the third grade level. For her, things turned out well. When her first choice, SCORE!, turned out to be full, she shuttled over to Kaplan in time to get him a seat.

But as many other parents slowly get a handle on their new options, they may not have much choice in where their kids get extra help, if they get it at all.

Federal guidelines stress the flexibility school districts have to fund private for-profit and nonprofit tutoring companies to offer students extra help. The city has approved 23 of them. This program is a potential cash cow for those chosen groups–each tutor makes between $4 and $90 per student per hour. Kaplan, for example, stands to get $600 from the city for each student its tutors spend 30 hours with this year.

New York City, however, has chosen to put only $10 million toward these private tutors. The city’s school districts will keep the rest to subsidize tutoring services run by the Department of Education itself.

This concerns Schnittger. “The law expects state and local officials to work in good faith to give parents as many options as possible for their children,” he says. “The supplemental services provision is a safety valve to ease pressure on underachieving schools and provide them with a little backup as they work to improve.”

Meanwhile, in November, local school officials were expecting to have to turn some students away from their tutoring services. “If there are more applications than spots, one option is to increase the amount of money through other funding sources,” says Melvin Thompson of Community School District 9 in the Bronx. “The other option is to rank children in the order of greatest need.”

And at least some of the private tutoring services will try to do more with less. At Interfaith Neighbors, which serves students from District 4 in East Harlem, reading lab director Alice Vogt estimates that for each of the 40 students they expect to serve, the first 15 one-hour sessions will be covered by the money they will get from school districts for their services. As for the rest of the school year, she says, they will fundraise to continue the free services.

Steve Gnagni is managing editor of Highbridge Horizon.