Districts also have struggled to police conflicts of interest. In Palm Beach County last year, an audit found that one in three teachers who tutored on the side was earning money from students in their own classrooms. That's a conflict, according to a 2004 opinion by the Florida Commission on Ethics, because it positions teachers to use a public job for private gain.
In Miami-Dade County, tutoring companies have relied on teacher influence to drive enrollment, School Board member Raquel Regalado said.
The businesses enlist the help of principals, who recruit their favorite teachers to work for the companies, Regalado said. "Then the teachers were going and telling the parents, 'You have to put this kid in tutoring,'" Regalado said.
In Lafayette County, in northern Florida, it was the schools superintendent who had close ties to a tutoring company.
While serving as the elected head of the district, Thomas Lashley ran the region's only Sylvan Learning Centers. In 2011, he valued the for-profit company at $800,000, according to financial disclosure forms. Lashley never sought business with his district, Lafayette schools officials said, but his company accepted more than $118,000 last year to tutor children in neighboring schools.
In the opinion of Peter Butzin, head of the government accountability group Common Cause Florida, the arrangement created the appearance of a conflict of interest but probably didn't break any rules.
Lashley left office last year. He couldn't be reached for comment.
Every year, the state Education Department misses chances to crack down on troubled tutoring firms.
The agency keeps files documenting problems, including dozens of formal complaints and letters from school districts that outline serious misdeeds.
Yet regulators have done little with the information. They can't even locate written complaints gathered during the tutoring program's first six years in Florida.
The result has been to stick districts with the same questionable companies year after year.
Although the Education Department grades companies on a scale of excellent to unsatisfactory, the ranking largely depends on tests administered by tutoring companies to chart student progress.
The state-assigned grades don't reflect allegations of suspicious paperwork, overbilling, shoddy tutoring or other misdeeds. Troubled companies often get good grades and are brought back to seek more government money.
The state can ban a tutoring company for two years when "the matter is of such magnitude that it cannot be addressed by the school district," state Board of Education rules say. But the Education Department has rarely taken advantage.
A spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education didn't respond to specific questions about why the state hasn't barred more companies for bad behavior. Cheryl Etters noted that districts have the right to cancel contracts with problem providers.
Yet state rules force districts to do business with every approved tutoring company that expresses an interest. If a company violates its district contract, the school system can fire the company for the remainder of the year.
But if the company keeps its state approval, it's back the next year for more business with the district. Schools officials say they contract every year with companies they know to have serious problems.
"We all deal with the same kind of issues," said Collier County's Holden, "which is what's so frustrating, because we can all compare notes, and we're all seeing the same things from the same providers year after year."
In a letter last February, Holden accused Miami-based A+ Educational Mapping of placing kids with unscreened tutors, filing questionable invoices, employing a manager who couldn't pass a background check and using tutoring materials that apparently were taken from another company.
"Such conduct not only constitutes a contract violation but also potentially puts students at risk of harm," Holden wrote.
The state got a copy of the letter, then approved the company again to work with kids — awarding it a ranking of "excellent."
The company's owner, Schiller Jerome, told the Times that the district's allegations were false. He said his firm was allowed to finish out the year in Collier County and noted that A+ Educational is back tutoring there this year. "And our company now has the most students," he said.
Lax oversight means tutoring firms can keep earning tax dollars even when they rack up complaints. Florida school districts have ended contracts with Computer Ed at least 12 times in the past two years, according to the state Education Department. Run by Michael Bartley, who pleaded guilty to a felony charge of fleeing police in Michigan in 2007, the company also was the subject of at least six written complaints.