Law gives boost to private firms
By Sarah Greenblatt
The role of education companies in public education is poised to explode nationwide as a result of the federal No Child Left Behind law, a local educator says.
"I think we're probably at the brink of seeing some changes in what has been their traditional role," said Glassboro Superintendent Mike Gorman, who has served on committees that evaluate schools for accreditation. "It is something we're all going to have to start considering because that is one of the caveats of No Child Left Behind."
Under the law, any school that misses student-achievement targets for three consecutive years must divert some of its federal revenues toward the cost of tutoring and after-school programs for low-income students.
For-profit companies approved by the state are eligible to provide the supplemental services, as are high-achieving public and private schools and nonprofit organizations.
Companies like Peoples Publishing Group, which received a $298,000 contract from Camden last month for a prescriptive testing program called Measuring Up, acknowledge in their annual reports that the federal law offers an economic boon.
"The new legislation has impacted every public school in the country," the company said in its March 25 annual report. "The current accountability and pressure to prepare students for the state tests is a primary driver of funding for test preparation, assessment and professional development."
Educate Inc. said in its 2004 annual report that Catapult - created in 1993 to serve public and private schools - brought in 40 percent of company revenues last year and that No Child Left Behind and state testing requirements "provide us with significant opportunities for continued growth."
The private sector's growing role in public education highlights a fundamental contradiction in the federal law, said Steve Wollmer, a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association.
"It's almost a double standard, where teachers are required to be highly qualified, and yet the people who are being paid to remediate students are not held to the same standard," Wollmer said.
No Child Left Behind specifically prohibits states from requiring certification for supplemental education providers, Wollmer said.
While states must approve and oversee providers that offer tutoring or after-school programs in schools that repeatedly miss achievement targets, Gail Sunderman, a senior research associate with Harvard University's Civil Rights Project, which reviews education reforms, said they hardly conduct a rigorous review.
"They say they're screening them when they sign them up, but the application process pretty much relies on information provided by the vendors," Sunderman said. "There's no information about how they're doing."
Platform Learning, a supplemental education provider that provided tutoring for Davis Elementary School - which did not meet NCLB targets for student achievement - provided a useful service, Camden mother Nachetta Domenices said.
Domenices credited Platform with raising the reading scores of her daughter, who receives special-education services.
"Her scores went up," Domenices said. "We're talking about a child who couldn't read at all."
In New Jersey, vendors must back up claims about their successes with references from parents and school officials, data about the impact of their programs on graduation rates or other indicators, said Suzanne Ochse, director of Title I programs for the state Department of Education.
The department turns down two-thirds of the companies that apply to provide after-school programs at underperforming schools, Ochse said.
"We have a robust system," she said, adding that the state continues to monitor the companies after they've been approved.
Ochse acknowledged, however, that the companies could sometimes receive undue credit for student achievement.
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