To pay for it, districts were to tap Title I money, federal funds set aside for elevating impoverished kids.
A new industry was born.
Hundreds of companies were formed in Florida alone. The bulk of them were for-profit. Each year more companies lined up, lured by the promise of per-child fees that averaged about $60 an hour.
With so much money at stake, providers have offered children bicycles, laptops and other prizes for signing up. They have followed kids from bus stops and mobbed parents in school parking lots.
In Miami-Dade County, a company sent a high school's administrators on a four-day golf outing while seeking to lease more tutoring space from the administrators, a district investigation found.
"I've had a provider tell me that they see children as individual income increments," said Peggy Hildebrand, whose office oversees tutoring contracts in Volusia County schools. "I had another provider tell me that NCLB stands for 'No Cash Left Behind.'"
A Times analysis of district billing data — the first of its kind in Florida — showed that 20 companies earned $1 million or more last year.
The top five earners collected a combined $20 million. The No. 1 tutoring business — founded by an Orlando businessman who formerly worked in sales and marketing for Miller Brewing Co. — collected more than $6 million.
Although federal law gave Florida power to regulate tutoring companies, it didn't hold owners and employees of the companies to the same high standards as teachers. Tutors hired by private firms don't need a college degree. Some companies recruit through Craigslist.
And though instructors must pass criminal background checks to work with children, the state requires no screening for owners and operators of tutoring companies.
As a result, the industry remains open to people like Axson.
Axson was running a day care in Orlando in 1999 when she put a 13-year-old girl in charge of three babies at once. A crockpot of hot water spilled on an infant boy, badly burning him, and Axson tried to cover it up, according to the state attorney's office.
Prosecutors charged her with felony child neglect and her mother, Beulah Wiggins, with a misdemeanor child labor law violation.
The case against Wiggins was dismissed, but Axson pleaded no contest in 2001. A judge withheld a formal finding of guilt and sentenced Axson to 10 years probation, during which she was banned from working with children and even from babysitting.
Under Florida law, her plea makes her ineligible to work in child care. She can't own or operate a day care center.
But in 2009 she registered to do business as Busy BEE Services and became a state-approved tutoring vendor.
Last year, her business collected more than $95,000 tutoring students in Orange County schools.
Neither Axson, 42, nor a company representative could be reached for comment, despite repeated phone calls and emails.
Axson's case isn't an isolated example, the Times found.
The newspaper used corporate records to identify more than 1,100 officers and directors of the 456 tutoring companies approved in Florida last school year. Comparing that list with records of criminal convictions and arrests uncovered at least 36 companies headed by people with criminal records.
In 24 cases, they pleaded guilty or no contest to charges ranging from misdemeanor domestic battery and public lewdness to grand theft and rape. In the others, charges were downgraded or dropped after the defendants made deals with prosecutors.
State laws meant to protect children would bar many of these people from working in a day care business. But those laws don't apply to government-funded tutoring companies, whose officers and directors are not screened.
Ernest R. Joe Jr. was in prison for raping a woman at gunpoint in front of her kids when he became a director of Kids World Enrichment Center Inc.
That didn't stop regulators from approving the company as a tutoring vendor in 2009.