For-Profit Companies Cashing in on New Education Law
By Eric Kelderman, Staff Writer
When five public schools in Cobb County, Ga., missed state benchmarks on reading and mathematics tests, some low-income students got the kind of private tutoring usually reserved for their wealthier peers.
That's because the Cobb County School District paid a for-profit education company, HOSTS Learning, Inc., to help prepare students for the next batch of state tests required under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
HOSTS is one of numerous private education companies vying for a share of an estimated $2 billion tutoring market created by the federal education law.
"There's a slew of money out there" for supplemental education services, said Ryan McClintock, a lobbyist for HOSTS, Inc., a 33-year-old company based in Vancouver, Wash., that also produces professional curriculum and teacher training materials. "The stream of revenue makes our eyes pop out of our heads."
In the case of Cobb County, all five schools that bought extra tutoring services met the state benchmarks in 2003, and the school district has decided to give HOSTS a contract to serve another 21 schools with a high number of low-income students.
Some education experts and public school officials, though, are uneasy that federal money targeted for disadvantaged children is flowing outside the public school systems with no guarantees that added costs will pay off academically.
"The issue is: If you are trying to improve student performance, is something you buy going to be more effective than what you could do in the classroom?" said David Shreve, education policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Under the No Child Left Behind Act, schools that miss annual state test benchmarks in reading and mathematics for three or more years must offer extra education services to low-income students. The law, President George W. Bush's signature domestic policy of 2002, allows private companies to compete for tutoring services.
About 7,000 of the nations schools currently are required to offer extra tutoring, HOSTS estimates. And 46 percent of eligible students in those schools are signing up for after-school or Saturday sessions this school year double the participation rate of the previous year, according to the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center on Education Policy.
That may be just the tip of the iceberg. Educators expect the number of schools that fail to reach benchmarks to balloon as the academic bar rises. The number of students who pass state tests must increase gradually, until all students are proficient by 2014. Schools in more than 20 percent of the nation's 15,000 school districts have missed testing benchmarks for at least two years, according to the Center on Education Policy.
The center also found that 63 percent of more than 1,400 supplemental educational service providers identified by states are private companies.
Sylvan Education Solutions, based in Baltimore, Md., already is providing extra school help for about 25,000 students across the country. HOSTS is serving students in 1,600 schools in 40 states, according to its Web site. Kaplan K12 Learning Services in New York, and Lightspan, a division of Plato Learning in Bloomington, Minn., are among a dozen names that also appear on many states' lists of supplemental service providers.
For-profit companies were prepared for the new opportunity and were "very aggressive" about marketing themselves to states and school districts, said Dana Carmichael, director of No Child Left Behind programs for Minneapolis Public Schools. While school systems and nonprofit organizations also can be approved to give the tutoring, they may find it hard to compete with large, well-known companies, she said.
While some policy analysts and educators have qualms about for-profit education, they also say their services may be a boon for both disadvantaged students who get extra academic help and for teachers who often get extra professional training.
But the private companies cannot reach everyone and often refuse to serve rural communities, said Patty Sullivan, deputy executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. "The problem is, big companies like Sylvan will come in to Illinois, but will only serve Chicago."
Carmichael said the law is too restrictive in some ways. For example, low-income students are the only ones allowed to receive the extra help in most cases, but they are not the only ones who need it.
The for-profit firms have their own reservations. HOSTS is not sure that the new opportunities will be profitable, said McClintock. The company currently is exploring several different models for its services, he explained, including employing teachers or partnering with volunteers from a nearby nonprofit.