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Private tutoring firms fill gaps from school budgets

May 4, 2010

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A Seattle Starbucks was the venue for this tutoring session. Photo by Flickr Wonderlane

Even as many K-12 students are counting down the month or so left in the school year, for-profit educational services are tallying up enrollment in summer-tutoring programs.

As states’ budget crises cut or threaten education funding, reports suggest that school districts’ loss may lead to a gain by for-profit tutoring and learning companies.

This article from the San Bernardino Sun says private companies are adapting their curriculum to serve the gaps left by school budget cuts, with one institute expecting to more than double enrollment.

A March report by NBC illustrates some of the fiscal problems public schools are facing, resulting in the elimination of arts, sports and other programs.  Some of the data in the report comes from this Pew Center on the States analysis of state woes.

And, while I’m no expert on federal education funding, there seems to be tutoring money in play via the No Child Left Behind act, and provision for states to pay private firms for tutoring services.  They’re known as supplemental-service providers; your state education department will have a list of approved ones.  Here, for example, is the list of current approved providers in Michigan, along with the maximum hourly rate they may charge – most in the $45 to $60 range.

You get the drift.  While school systems may suffer, there’s still plenty of scope for for-profit businesses that offer tutoring, enrichment classes, educational camps and remedial education.  This IBISWorld report – or the portion of it that’s available free online – indicates a $6.5 billion industry, with some 99,000 outlets. (Note, they lump driving schools into this figure, but it’s a start.)

Some of the larger players include Sylvan Learning, Kumon and Huntington Learning.  One very interesting niche is occupied by Education Inc., which provides teachers to hospitalized, institutionalized or homebound youngsters.

Online-tutoring programs, of course, are becoming more popular; big names include Tutor.com and e-Tutor.com.

Among other things, the tutoring field provides jobs for unemployed professionals.  Many of the chains also offer franchises, which gives you the option of writing the story from a small-business or personal-finance angle as well.  Here’s a piece last fall from Entrepreneur magazine about a successful tutoring start-up. Outfits such as The Wealthy Tutor offer “start-up kits” and the like; this sort of thing brings out my inner skeptic, and an investigation of the value of such help for would-be tutors would be timely.

Before the school year ends, readers would snap up an infographic comparing the programs, services and prices at a variety of local tutoring firms.  Be sure to interview pedagogy experts for tips on selecting a tutor, and check with your state’s attorney general or consumer protection division about known scams.

And TiVo alert: It’s targeting higher education, but PBS’s “Frontline” plans a program tonight (Tuesday, May 4) called “College, Inc.” It investigates the rise of for-profit colleges and universities and “the tensions between their Wall Street backers and regulators,” according to its website. ProPublica.org and American Public Media’s “Marketplace” have covered some of this ground before.


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