Russ Miller, a tutoring company executive, says he is pretty excited about the business these days. It's not hard to be when he sees a potential $2 billion market up for grabs.
No Child Left Behind, the federal law enacted to improve the quality of public schools, has given private tutoring companies a potentially huge new source of income by requiring some troubled schools to contract with tutors for low-income, low-performing students, using money set aside for poor schools.
FOR THE RECORD - Parents of students eligible for tutoring through the No Child Left Behind law can choose among a variety of providers selected by each state. That has given tutoring companies access to customers they would not have served, said Jeffrey Cohen, Catapult Learning's chief executive. An article in Sunday's business section incorrectly characterized Cohen's remarks.
The Sun regrets the errors.
Industry revenues from NCLB-mandated services more than doubled this past school year from 2003-2004 and are expected to grow by at least 20 percent this year. At Baltimore-based Educate Inc., one of the largest for-profit tutoring companies, revenue from work with troubled schools jumped 402 percent in 2004 - to $27.6 million from $5.5 million.
"We're pretty excited about that from a business perspective," said Miller, vice president of business development for Huntington Learning Centers Inc., based in Oradell, N.J. "We're pretty well poised to capitalize on [the market], and I say capitalize, but I mean helping kids."
But the anticipated annual market of $2 billion has been only about one-eighth that much, mostly because thousands of students eligible for free tutoring are not signing up, according to Eduventures, a Boston-based education information company.
Mark Jackson, director of kindergarten through 12th grade research at Eduventures, said a high estimate of the number of eligible students receiving services is about 200,000, or 12 percent.
"What's going on in the industry is there are companies who are very eager to enroll students, more eager than students are to enroll in the programs," Jackson said. "The challenge is even with the funding available, ... parents have to say, `Yes, I want my child to take advantage of this opportunity.'"
Tutoring companies see the NCLB market as a way to give low-income students the advantages they've offered for years to middle-class children needing extra help in school or to students from affluent families trying to boost their test scores to get into top colleges or secondary schools.
"This is not a get-rich-quick program," said Steve Pines, executive director of the Education Industry Association, a trade group for education companies. "It's wonderful that high- quality tutoring companies have their services available to kids who normally could never afford it. It's great."
But some educators are critical of the program because tutoring providers, unlike schools and teachers, are not accountable under the law for the students being able to pass standardized tests. The providers say they ensure that most students will at least make some improvement - which they maintain is better than nothing.
No Child Left Behind, enacted in 2002, mandates that nearly all children in public schools reach proficiency in reading and math. The law requires annual testing that determines how much students, individual schools and school districts have improved year over year.
Schools that do not meet standards for two years in a row are placed in the "school improvement" category, which means parents can transfer their kids to a better-performing school or schools must offer free tutoring for students.
Parents choose a tutor from lists compiled by the states. Approved tutoring providers can range from schools, to nonprofit groups and faith-based organizations, to small startup businesses and nationwide, for-profit companies such as Catapult Learning, a division of Educate Inc., and Huntington. Maryland's list of approved tutors includes more than three dozen providers who offer small group, one-on-one or online services.
Companies don't receive a set price for the tutoring services; the federal government provides $900 to $2,500 a year per student, depending on the state and school district, Pines said.
Providers then determine the length and frequency of tutoring sessions based on students' needs and the money available. Huntington, which normally charges about $40 an hour for retail tutoring, often receives a similar rate for its NCLB services, Miller said.
In the three years since the program started, providers and schools have been figuring out how to set up the services, Pines said. In some parts of the country, parents don't sign up their children for the tutoring programs because tutors are too far away or because kids have other after-school activities.
Maryland has a different problem: The state has funding for only about 12,000 of the 30,500 students who are eligible for tutoring services - and only 6,000 are using it, said Ann Chafin, chief of program improvement for the Maryland State Department of Education. In Baltimore, where a high number of schools fail to meet the No Child Left Behind standards, some children were denied free tutoring because of high demand and not enough supply.