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Private Tutors Lining Up

Monday, February 16, 2004 at 10:17 AM

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One of the hallmarks of republican-led public education reforms in Ohio has been increased opportunity for the private sector to get involved. Charter school legislation enacted in the late 90s, we've seen, has made hundreds of millions of public school dollars available to entrepreneurs who claim to have a better approach to educating kids. Cleveland's voucher program, now eight years old, is another example of public dollars freed up for private schooling. Now President Bush's No Child Left Behind initiative has provided yet another path to the public education well, and private tutors are beginning to line up. ideastream's Bill Rice reports.

Geraldine Harris Tucker has always had a soft spot in her heart for latchkey kids. So when President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into federal law, she saw an opportunity and took it.

Geraldine Harris Tucker: I was looking at an after school program activity where that the children had somewhere to go once they were dismissed from school at 1:45. You have several schools in a pot over on the Southeast side of Cleveland where the middle school students are let out between the hours of 1:45 and 2:20, where do they go?

Tucker’s Real School After School is now one option. The tutoring program has been up and running since last November, when it became eligible to receive public tax dollars under No Child Left Behind to provide that service. But not, Tucker says, without strings.

Geraldine Harris Tucker: I had to provide the state with the goals of my program, what exactly I wanted to achieve once I got on the list. What did I foresee doing with the children, as far as just tutoring. How I was going to test them. How I was going to help them meet their goals, the children’s goals as far as it being successful in their grade level.

Tucker’s application to provide supplemental educational services was approved by the Ohio Department of Education, and her program became one of about two dozen to begin tutoring kids - compliments of the public schools. Not all kids are eligible for supplemental services; only those attending schools that have performed poorly over a number of years. But that still comes out to a sizable number of kids in some districts, and that translates into dollars.

Michael Charney: There’s a lot of money to be made on the Supplemental Services.

That’s Michael Charney, the Cleveland Teachers Union’s point person on No Child Left Behind. Under the law, he says, districts must set aside up to a fifth of its federal dollars known as Title I funds - to pay for school choice options, including supplemental service tutoring.

Michael Charney: One fifth, I think about a year and a half ago, would have been $9 million in the Cleveland Schools and it’s going up every year with adjustments to inflation.

That’s money that any private company can tap into once they’re on the list of state-approved providers. After that, it’s just a matter of Company X convincing eligible students - or their parents - that it can help the student do better in school. Jeffrey Cohen is president of Sylvan Education Solutions - a sister company of the well-know Sylvan Learning Centers, and formed on the heels of No Child Left Behind. Cohen says the Act was a good fit for Sylvan.

Jeffrey Cohen: We saw in the supplemental services provisions truly the codification and affirmation of the business that we’ve been in for over ten years. So it is absolutely a great opportunity for us to reach many more children who need extra assistance in helping them with their education.

Whether it’s a national company like Sylvan, a local start-up like Real School After School, or even an internet distance-learning program, the Title I provision of the No Child law puts the choice of providers solely with parents. That’s laudable to many in the education establishment, but other aspects of the measure raise flags for some. Debra Tully is with the Ohio Federation of Teachers - long a critic of republican education policies.

Debra Tully: The teacher for a provider of supplemental education services does not have to have anything other than what an aide would have in terms of qualifications. The state cannot mandate that they have the same certification and licensure as teachers in the classroom.

Many do, in fact, have that certification. But they’re not required to, and indeed, some don’t. Beyond that, Tully says, the supplemental service provision presents yet another example of the creeping privatization of public education - a bone of contention with many in the education establishment.

Debra Tully: It’s similar to the charter school concept where tax dollars that are supposed to be going to a school are now going to a private company that’s making money… We think the money would be better left in the public schools to create programs that all children can benefit from, not just the ones that choose to leave it.

So far the number of kids in Cleveland taking advantage of the choice option is low compared to the number who qualify. Schools CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett says that’s fine with her.

Barbara Byrd Bennett: I’m not quite sure what the reasons are, but in many ways it works to our advantage because we are therefore able to offer extended day from that same pot of money because we are a supplemental service provider.

But For Sylvan’s Jeffrey Cohen, who insists private entities can and should have a role in public education, the low number spells opportunity.

Jeffrey Cohen: The law calls for the school districts to inform the parents whose students are eligible, but we as an approved provider have to do our part to try to get the word out.

Whether or not providing supplemental services to disadvantaged, underachieving kids will ultimately reap profits is an open question. Sylvan wouldn’t say if they’re making money, nor are they required to. Geraldine Tucker says she wants to, but so far the returns are pretty lean.

Geraldine Harris Tucker: You cannot be a millionaire off of what they are asking of you but it is of reason and you definitely have to love what you have to do.

And the pay, she says, is icing on the cake. In Cleveland, Bill Rice, 90.3.

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