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NCLB Offers Bonanza to Private Tutoring Firms

When Mignon Davis read the flyer her 10-year-old daughter, Nykia, brought home from Philadelphia's Shaw Middle School, she could hardly believe it.

A company called Best Education Partners was ready to tutor her child for free.

The program included 30 hours of instruction, a 5-1 student-teacher ratio, and a curriculum combining intensive phonics with books written for multicultural, urban students.

All she had to do was tell the district.

For Davis, an administrative assistant who knew her daughter needed extra help, it was a no-brainer.

So, this spring Nykia became one of the first 3,000 Philadelphia students to get "supplemental education services" - a whole new world created by the 2001 federal education law called No Child Left Behind.

More than 100,000 academically struggling Philadelphia students are eligible for free tutoring because the 178 low-performing schools they attend haven't shown the year-to-year improvement that No Child Left Behind requires.

It's also a huge new market for savvy entrepreneurs who pursue the new federal money earmarked for tutoring.

"This is redefining how we deliver public education," said State Rep. Dwight Evans, a Democrat from West Oak Lane who supports charter schools and vouchers. "This is an investment in kids who are trapped in systems that don't work."

In Pennsylvania, 252 schools qualify, including some in the Chester Upland district. In New Jersey, 216 schools fall in the "needs improvement" category under No Child Left Behind, including some in Camden and Willingboro.

All parents have to do is choose a provider from a state-approved list that the district is obligated to send to them.

Using a formula laid out in the law, the Philadelphia School District is paying the private tutors $1,358 per pupil per year to provide at least 30 hours of after-school tutoring with a student-teacher ratio of not more than 8-1.

The $1,358 is nearly twice the per-pupil annual supplement being given to the outside managers, such as Edison Schools Inc., to run entire public schools, including an extended day program.

But when compared with the cost of private tutoring, "the cost is pretty reasonable," said Jeffrey Cohen, president of Sylvan Education Solutions, which specializes in tutoring urban children.

No Child Left Behind, which reauthorized the federal Title I program for low-achieving, low-income students, requires districts to set aside up to 15 percent of their federal grant for the new private tutoring.

In Philadelphia, if enough parents seek the tutoring, that could mean more than $15 million a year going to for-profit firms, nonprofit community organizations, individuals, even faith-based groups. That's money the district could otherwise spend in the schools for such things as smaller classes and teacher training.

Jason Green, 26, and Matthew Mugo Fields, 27, founded Best Education Partners last year. This spring they signed up 900 students with a campaign that included leafletting at supermarkets.

"Many parents didn't know their rights," said Green, of Yeadon. "You can imagine, they were overjoyed."

Seventeen providers - ranging from Best Education Partners to established players such as Sylvan educational services to neighborhood organizations such as the Point Breeze Civic Association - recruited students. If all this spring's students can be documented, the district will pay more than $4 million to these organizations.

Some wonder whether districts and states have had the time to set adequate screening and evaluation procedures.

Under the federal law, instructors don't have to be certified teachers, but within two years must show a "demonstrated record of effectiveness." States and districts are trying to figure out what that means.

"It's going to be very difficult to evaluate these services, certainly in terms of outcomes," said Clive Belfield of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University's Teachers' College.

State officials evaluated providers based on their finances, quality of teaching staff, and coordination with the relevant school district's educational program, said Sheri Rowe, chief of performance accountability for the Department of Education. Each must then be approved by the school district. To be paid, they must submit a detailed report on each student's attendance and progress.

"We have a lot of questions" about how this will work, Rowe said.

So far, Pennsylvania has approved about 70 tutoring organizations, of which half are cleared for work in Philadelphia. New Jersey has approved 28.

As required, Philadelphia sent letters starting last October to parents of eligible students, telling them of their right to tutoring and listing the approved providers. In the same letter, the district touted its own after-school program as an alternative, even though students are entitled to both.

After the letters went out, "our phones were tied up," said Linda Scanlan, director of a Sylvan Learning Center franchise in Northeast Philadelphia. The 140 students who enrolled under No Child Left Behind made up about half its clientele last semester, she said. They got the same program as paying students - 40 hours that included an evaluation, small-group instruction, and a post-test to measure progress, she said.

Sylvan's urban education arm, Sylvan Education Solutions, tutored about 300 students at six sites in North and West Philadelphia.

The district's own after-school program gave 15,000 students 80 hours of instruction, with one teacher for 18 students. It used Princeton Review materials to teach reading and Voyager Expanded Learning for math.

The district and many outside providers, including Best Education Partners, hire mostly school-district teachers for tutoring.

The district is setting standards and guidelines for next year, when thousands more tutoring requests are expected.

"This first year, there was some scrutiny, but not a great deal," said district spokeswoman Amy Guerin. "When the invoices come back, we want to see more detail, what did the students learn, what progress did they make. We'll be stepping that up for next year."

Mignon Davis, for one, was satisfied with Nykia's tutoring from Best.

"I liked the fact that there were only five kids to a teacher," Davis said. "Before she was hesitant, but now she picks up a book and reads it. Her self-esteem went up. And she'd say, 'I learned to do this.' "

— Dale Mezzacappa
Law creates opportunities for students, businesses
Philadelphia Inquirer
July 7, 2003


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