Page One

Free Tutoring Becomes Big Business in Public Schools

By Suzanne La Barre
Tuesday June 06, 2006

Christina Paniagua’s daughter, a fifth-grader at Jefferson Elementary School in Oakland, needed extra help with reading, so Paniagua attended a school fair to find out about free private tutoring services available on-campus. 

When she arrived, she was barraged with tutoring companies handing out fliers and logo wares—pens, pencils and books—in attempt to sway parents to sign up for their program. Paniagua, who speaks minimal English, wasn’t sure how to differentiate between the companies; eventually, she settled on one because “the people at the table convinced” her to. 

Tutoring fairs are part and parcel of a prominent feature of No Child Left Behind: free supplementary educational services for the nation’s low-income students who attend underperforming schools. Proponents tout the law for offering federal Title I funds to help those most in need and empowering parents—who select tutors—to influence their children’s learning. 

But critics say the law has hatched a culture of capitalism in public education, evidenced by aggressive marketing among providers—some of whose qualifications are questionable. 

“It is not anything out of the world of education,” said Arlene Graham, director of Art, Research & Curriculum (ARC) Associates, a nonprofit tutoring provider in Oakland. “It’s out of business and marketing.” 

Nowhere in the East Bay is that more apparent than in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), a 42,000-student school district that allocates nearly $1,500 in Title I dollars per student for after-school tutoring. About 3,350 students participate, meaning private tutoring in Oakland is a $5 million a year industry and growing. Compare that with Berkeley Unified School District, which spends around $60,000 a year for the same services. 

Parents select tutors from a list of state-approved providers, which charge anywhere from $25 to $90 an hour, according to Niambi Clay, an OUSD program manager. Students typically receive 20 to 60 hours of instruction a year. 

This year, 40 companies vied to tutor students in OUSD and 25 secured contracts. When No Child Left Behind was signed into law in 2002, Oakland contracted with just three vendors, one provider said. The number of companies providing tutoring services has since mushroomed; in 2005-2006, the California Department of Education approved about 70 vendors. 

Vendors are nonprofits, for-profit and faith-based groups. To receive state approval, they must show they are founded on research, designed to improve academic achievement and meet other standards. 

That does not, however, guarantee quality control. Sobrante Park Elementary School Principal Marco Franco complained that just about anyone can start a tutoring company and bill it as a professional organization.  

“Some are better than others,” he said. “But this (is the) nature of No Child Left Behind—these people are coming out just because it’s an opportunity to make money. It’s as sad as that.” 

Platform Learning, a New York-based corporation that launched tutoring under the auspices of the federal law in 2003, was ousted from the Chicago schools in 2005 over complaints of large class sizes, tutor shortages, tutors canceling classes and administrative snafus. The same company was the largest provider in Oakland last year; it is no longer on the list of California-approved vendors.  

Competition among those that are approved is fierce. At the beginning of the 2005-2006 school year, three districtwide tutoring fairs and countless site-level events were held to persuade parents of eligible students to enlist in tutoring programs. Vendors set up shop in libraries and cafeterias, luring parents in with logo swag and raffles that some say advertised an iPod, an Xbox or a $100 credit card as the grand prize. 

Therein lies a problem, critics say. At tutoring fairs, many parents are unable to distinguish between providers, don’t speak English or are otherwise unclear about what they’re enrolling for—and, the best prizes don’t necessarily presage the best tutors. 

Like Christina Paniagua, Ana Luisa Becerra looked into free tutoring throught the Oakland school district because her child struggled with reading. 

Becerra, who does not speak English, attended a fair at Jefferson Elementary School and a selected a company for her fifth-grade daughter Dayana because representatives at the table gave her an application. Dayana never finished the program, though. Some boys in her tutoring group were mean to her, and the adults in charge never addressed the problem, she said. Next year, Becerra will seek out a different company if tutoring is offered at the middle school Dayana is slated to attend. 

Tutoring fairs prove particularly daunting for some nonprofits, whose salesmanship lacks the glossy finesse of their business-savvy counterparts. Graham, a former Oakland schools administrator, signed on to offer tutoring through No Child Left Behind because it seemed like a natural progression from the general education services ARC Associates offers, she said, but she wasn’t prepared for the promotion wars that ensued. 

“This is competitive,” she said. “We could sink because I don’t know anything about marketing.” 

ARC Associates has made a name for itself in Oakland as a dependable provider, and relies on word-of-mouth to secure participants. That may be a better bet, anyway, because as vendors, teachers and administrators have pointed out, parent attendance at fairs is spotty at best. 

“Those generally have limited success because parents don’t show up for them,” said Mark Lemyre, CEO of Reading Revolution, which serves five elementary schools in the Oakland school district. 

So vendors try other tactics. They visit schools, pass out fliers and solicit principals. 

Allendale Elementary School Principal Steven Thomasberger bemoaned the companies that have called him on his cell phone, at home and have camped out in his office, waiting to sell him on their services: “They were so aggressive and obnoxious,” he said. 

Another principal described the vendors as “vultures coming out of the woodwork.” 

Lemyre conceded, “The warmth with which we are received varies from school to school.” 

For tutoring companies, the incentive to conduct aggressive marketing campaigns is simple. They need to enroll enough students to earn a profit. If they can’t, the business venture is no longer lucrative, and they consolidate services or decamp altogether.  

This year, tutors from two companies declined to continue their program or failed to show up at tutoring sessions at Allendale when they were unable to recruit enough students, Thomasberger said.  

“If it’s not financially feasible, they beg off,” he said. 

More and more, vendors are discovering that financial gain is not a shoo-in. Education Station, the largest provider to serve Oakland—and one of the first—is up for sale by parent company Educate, Inc. because the cost of developing and operating the No Child Left Behind enterprise has proved “detrimental to consolidated operating performance,” a 2005 company press release said. 

Reading Revolution, another founding provider, has seen business in Oakland fall off, due to increased competition and other factors, Lemyre said. 

“Programs are increasingly becoming less profitable,” he said. “In general, it’s certainly not the most lucrative line of business for us, but it’s marginally profitable.” 

Still, it’s no drop in the bucket. PLATO Learning, a Minnesota-based provider approved in Oakland, raked in $3.7 million for federally funded tutoring services in 2004, the Associated Press reported in April. The No Child Left Behind arm of Education Inc. logged about half a million dollars in revenue the same year. 

That’s money which schools could be using to fund their own after school programs, Thomasberger said. 

“If you contract out with other kinds of services, you don’t have the same control,” he said. “I’d rather have that money to put my own tutoring program together.” 


Part II will look at implementation roadblocks and the efficacy of private tutoring through No Child Left Behind.