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Educational Entrepreneurship

Ohanian Comment: What a term to freeze your heart: Educational entrepreneurship. Do you want to put your kids in the care of educational entrepreneurs? It is not surprising that tutoring may be a magic word to poor blacks, but it's a sham when commercial tutoring factories hand out conveyor belt skills in workbook pages. It's also a scam when the schools do th esame thing.

In the bold new reality created by the federal education law called No Child Left Behind, students in under-performing public schools are entitled to free private tutoring.

In this region, about 10,000 students in the cities of Chester and Camden qualify, but that number is dwarfed by the 100,000 who are eligible in Philadelphia.

This week, Philadelphia parents should get a letter informing them of tutoring options - but the choices are not exactly what school district chief executive Paul Vallas wanted.

Vallas has made no secret of his concern that the tutoring - known as supplemental services - is a potential boondoggle, especially for the profit-making companies that have sprung up expressly to do this work.

The law entitles providers to $1,815 per student in Philadelphia, $1,670 in Chester, and $1,350 in Camden, based on each district's federal aid earmarked for disadvantaged students.

"I'm not averse to outside providers, but to spending $1,800 per student," Vallas said. "My frustration is that there are so many kids in need, and my frustration is accountability. I'm just trying to serve the most children possible with the highest-quality program."

Vallas says that only 12,500 students will get tutoring if each goes to an outside provider, compared with more than 40,000 who could get help through the district's program. He says his program costs $300 per student and can provide 120 hours of instruction compared with as little as 30 hours from some providers.

He had wanted to steer most eligible students into the district's extended-day program by making it mandatory for them.

But after providers and some parents complained that this limited their options and contradicted the intent of the law, state regulators told the district that private tutoring could serve as an alternative to the extended-day requirement.

The letter going out this week will offer parents the choice of private tutoring from one of 50 state-approved providers - or from the district itself, which has been approved to offer supplemental services through its extended-day program.

Vallas hopes most will choose the extended-day program. But the providers - which include the for-profit companies founded for this purpose, faith-based organizations that already tutor in impoverished neighborhoods, national education firms, community groups, and individuals - are also aggressively trying to drum up business.

"There are some terrific not-for-profits," Vallas said, but "for every quality company, there's at least another program out there of poor quality where the companies are reaping outrageous profits."

Advocates of school choice say that encouraging educational entrepreneurship and giving parents choices is exactly what the law is meant to do.

"The intent of the law is pretty clear: it's supposed to offer a lifesaver to parents whose kids are trapped in schools that are not working," said Lawrence Patrick, president and chief executive officer of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, which promotes school choice for parents. "Until No Child Left Behind, tutoring had been linked to having money," he said. "Low-income people never thought of tutoring as an option."

The 2001 federal law requires schools to meet yearly standards of progress. Low-income students in schools that fail to meet goals for two years are eligible either to transfer or pick a private tutor.

The market is huge, nationally and in Philadelphia. Almost all the students in 192 schools that educate roughly 75 percent of the district's students potentially qualify for tutoring. About 1,000 have chosen to transfer.

In the Chester-Upland School District, where 4,000 are eligible, 130 parents have requested tutoring since letters went out Sept. 15, according to Melva Shipley, the district's director of federal programs.

In Camden, 5,800 students are eligible, but the funding - about $1.6 million - will only cover 1,200 students, officials said.

"We can only go until the money runs out," Assistant Superintendent Fred Reiss said.

Each district is struggling with how to serve as many students as possible. Districts with failing schools are required to set aside up to 20 percent of their federal Title One grant, money earmarked for disadvantaged students, for transfers and tutoring. Because Philadelphia gets $115 million from Title One, more than $20 million is at stake that would otherwise go to schools for such things as reduced class size.

"What we're doing, as any school district in their right mind would do, is have after-school and summer-school programs that serve the whole district," Vallas said.

The district's extended-day program - part small-group instruction, part enrichment activities - is open to all students.

Parents eligible for supplemental services can choose between that program and the private tutoring groups, but technically are eligible for both.

Vallas has hired nationally known education companies including Princeton Review, Voyager, Kaplan and Fast ForWord to run the math and reading instruction during the extended-day programs, and partnered with community organizations for the enrichment activities.

The letter touts the district's own program as the preferred alternative.

One of the largest private tutoring groups is Platform Learning, formerly Best Education Partners, a for-profit firm run by Eugene Wade, a former Edison Schools Inc. vice president.

Wade said that he had invested "a couple million" dollars in developing curriculum, recruiting and training teachers, reaching out to parents, computerizing student record-keeping, and acquiring sites in which to operate. Wade said he trained 500 teachers last weekend.

He hopes to make a profit, but says his firm has worked hard to develop a multicultural curriculum that has high expectations. Besides Philadelphia, he plans to launch programs in Boston, New York, Camden and Newark, N.J.

On the other end of the spectrum, some community organizations and nonprofits see the law as a way to shore up work they are already doing with students on a shoestring.

Public/Private Ventures in Philadelphia has spearheaded after-school programs in 40 area churches, serving 2,100 students since June 2000. It received $80,000 from the U.S. Department of Education to help faith-based organizations fill out the applications to become approved tutors.

Said Leigh Bernstein, the organization's literacy director: "We've been saving the school district money by doing this, privately funding it and improving kids' reading scores."

— Dale Mezzacappa
Vallas critical of tutoring options
Philadelphia Inquirer


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