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Tutoring a big -- and largely unregulated -- business on Long Island

A volunteer instructor teaches at the Hempstead Hispanic

A volunteer instructor teaches at the Hempstead Hispanic Counseling Center. Tutoring on Long Island is a largely unregulated, multimillion dollar business that holds out the promise of better test grades for students, but can also bring big expenses. Credit: News 12

Tutoring on Long Island is a largely unregulated multimillion-dollar business that holds out the promise of better test grades for students but can also bring big expenses, uncertain results and sometimes corrupt vendors for those seeking help.

For-profit tutoring firms appeal primarily to parents worried about their children struggling to catch up with math and reading, or those looking to get ahead and into the best college possible. Experts say price tags for outside tutoring on Long Island can range from $1,000 a year for remedial help -- sometimes subsidized by taxpayers -- to more than $7,000 for high-tech private lessons and test prep in places such as the North Shore and the Hamptons.

"Whatever it takes, whatever is possible," says parent Rachel Fermin about the cost of sending her son Zach, 7, to tutoring sessions at the Sylvan Learning Center in Levittown, one of the heavily advertised commercial franchises.

Over the past year, Fermin estimates she's paid about $2,000 out of pocket to supplement her son's education as a second-grader in the East Meadow public schools. "You can't just leave it up to the schools. You have to either do it yourself or find someone else to do it."

A Newsday-News 12 Long Island investigation shows that tutoring on Long Island, virtually without government oversight, can vary widely in quality and cost -- part of a nationwide industry worth more than $5 billion annually.

At its best, both parents and education experts say, tutoring can work effectively to improve a student's performance, but the lack of oversight can create the opportunity for problems. Among the findings:

Virtually anyone can be a tutor on Long Island, regardless of their qualifications. While teachers in Long Island's public schools are required to be state certified, there is no such requirement for teaching outside the classroom. Unlike carpenters, painters or home improvement contractors who show up at the door, those who privately tutor children -- sometimes inside their homes -- are not required to be licensed in either Nassau or Suffolk.

Taxpayer-subsidized tutoring for struggling students -- funded by federal No Child Left Behind legislation passed a decade ago -- has mostly collapsed on Long Island during the past two years because of controversy surrounding the program. Of the 94 approved firms listed in Nassau and Suffolk in the past two years, Newsday found at least 15 with a history of criminal or civil charges, or other financial irregularities.

Despite large investments by Long Island parents, the tutoring industry's promise of higher test scores and better results can be elusive and sometimes misleading, experts say. After criticism, Sylvan Learning backed away from a "guarantee" of results. Like other firms, it now stresses building up skills and student confidence. In academic studies, other experts question the effectiveness and money spent on long-distance online teaching techniques embraced by the tutoring industry.

Government emphasis on test scores, classroom overcrowding and a general unhappiness with public school teaching have fueled an estimated 8 percent annual rise in the private tutoring industry for individualized instruction, experts say. Tutor expenses have become a big part of some families' budget. Nationally, parents even have relied on Sallie Mae, the private education loan firm usually used by college students, for tutoring loans that averaged $6,500 until the program ended in 2013, officials say.

Background checks for previous criminal or sexual offenses are routine at large tutoring firms but are often absent from smaller firms or individuals hired by parents. Last year, a Ronkonkoma tutor -- already facing criminal charges in Nassau County -- was arrested by Suffolk police on charges of stealing jewelry from the homes of her customers in Hauppauge. Nationally since 2000, Newsday found more than 80 cases of alleged sexual offenses and other crimes by tutors.

While the tutoring industry has been endorsed by many top national politicians, it often has been at odds with local school districts and teacher unions in the battle for federal education funding. Many top for-profit franchises benefited greatly from No Child Left Behind subsidies during the past decade. Conflict-of-interest rules also vary on whether Long Island public teachers can be hired by tutoring firms in the same district.

Private tutoring on Long Island often reflects the stark racial and economic differences in school districts, experts say. Students from affluent Long Island homes can pay for the best after-school tutoring, while those in poorer areas have fewer options.

On Long Island, the surge in tutoring in recent years can be seen on any major thoroughfare dotted with signs for Huntington Learning, Sylvan Learning, Kumon and more than 200 private tutoring businesses serving students from kindergarten to college-bound. Tutors range from public school teachers who moonlight for nationally known franchises to recent college grads and individual freelancers with few if any credentials simply looking to make a buck.

"Tutoring is a tremendous field especially on Long Island -- more so than any place in the state," says June Innella, chairwoman of the Nassau Region PTA's education committee. She says parents usually pay top private tutors from $90 to $150 an hour and find them through local word-of-mouth and marketing promotion, often with little regard for state certification or checking credentials. As Innella explains: "Tutoring is done outside the school and the state can't regulate what the parents do."

Those in the tutoring business say it can make a big difference for students who are failing in their regular classroom or are fearful that their test results won't be good enough in an ever-competitive academic world. Private tutoring firms are investing in Internet techniques -- such as teaching long distances via Skype or other Internet video devices, rather than traditional face-to-face teaching -- to increase their business.

"There's a flow of new dollars that have helped both the for-profits and not-for-profits to grow," says Steven Pines, executive director of the Virginia-based Education Industry Association, with 225 members nationally collecting an estimated $5 billion to $7 billion in revenue last year. His trade group says spending on private tutoring has nearly doubled since the early 2000s, with 80 percent for remedial help and another 20 percent for test preparation courses.

But on Long Island, parents are often alone in judging the credentials and background of those tutoring their children, says attorney Kenneth Mollins, who has represented upset parents who have complained or threatened to sue tutors in the Hempstead, Freeport and Roosevelt districts.

"Some of these private centers we've looked at, they have tutors who have no experience whatsoever," explains Mollins. "They [the owners] say, 'Tomorrow you're going to teach math,' they read the math book, and they go tutor. You need someone who knows how to instruct, how to teach. That's why we license our teachers in this state, because these teachers are taught how to instruct our students."

Jeanne Beattie, a spokeswoman for the New York State Education Department, which oversees all public schools on Long Island, confirmed the agency doesn't monitor private tutoring firms, or require state certification for those teaching outside the classroom. Parents searching for tutors tend to be "relatively unsophisticated consumers," explains one top state Education Department executive, who asked not to be identified. "We do not in any way certify or license after-school teaching or tutoring services. Anybody can put a local ad in Newsday."

Adequate oversight lacking

While some national franchises say they do background checks on their tutors, critics say many smaller firms and freelance tutors escape any scrutiny. Last year's arrest of Bonni Blier, a Ronkonkoma resident whose website touted herself as "Miss Bonni" -- an in-home tutor for students with autism and other special needs -- illustrates what can go wrong.

On her website, Blier touted her credentials, with testimonials from parents hailing her tutoring results. "Today my son is on the Honor Roll in High School, and I truly believe part of his accomplishments are because of Bonni's way of teaching and caring," said one parent, identified as "Donna B." of Ronkonkoma on Blier's website.

But parents who hired Blier as a tutor were surprised in February 2014, when Suffolk charged her with stealing jewelry from at least four homes in the Hauppauge area where she taught students.

"You think if someone is in this type of business -- working with children -- my mind doesn't go there to think she's stealing from me," said Karen Kraemer-Singh, a Hauppauge parent who hired Blier to help her son and found jewelry missing from her home. "I thought she'd just be there to help my child and that's it."

At that time, Suffolk police also discovered the 36-year-old tutor was already facing a 2013 criminal charge of grand larceny in Nassau. She eventually pleaded guilty in both cases and is awaiting sentencing.

"The person I was last year is not the person I am today," Blier told Newsday before refusing to comment further.

William Mangino, a Hofstra associate professor of sociology who has studied the No Child Left Behind program, says parents should be concerned about the lack of oversight of private tutoring firms.

"Tutors in the state of New York should be licensed and regulated -- it's an assurance of a level of quality," Mangino says. "Particularly in a state like New York, every profession -- particularly human services professions -- has to go through some type of licensure procedure to assure at least a minimum level of competence. We're trusting our children -- our most prized resource -- with people and how do we know they're being serviced well?"

Catherine Romano, a New York State PTA education expert who lives in Islip, says parents of the estimated 25 percent of all students who will rely at some point on a tutor, need more protection.

"There should be some parameters that the tutoring agencies need to meet in making sure that everybody who works for them is cleared as not a felon or a sexual offender."

Industry officials say they're reluctant to agree to any regulation that would add extra expense passed on to the customer. The big-name firms also say they look for top-level credentials and do careful background checks of their tutors.

No guarantees

Local franchise owners of nationally known tutoring firms insist they're dedicated to improving each youngster's education and are run differently than other for-profit franchise businesses such as McDonald's. They insist they generally hire state-certified teachers, some retired instructors, or, like Sylvan Learning, have tutor-certification programs of their own.

"We are a nationally known brand but we are a local business," explains Barbara Steiger, director of Sylvan Learning Centers in Levittown and Wading River. "We're a business that is really looking to help our students. So each program, each parent we deal with on an individual basis -- not a one-size-fits-all, the way a fast-food chain may be."

What parents can expect for their money, however, is open to debate. For years, Sylvan Learning advertised its "Sylvan Guarantee" -- promising that a child would improve at least one grade level in testing after 36 hours of math or reading instruction. If not, customers were assured that they would get another 12 hours "at no further cost to you."

But in 2007 a Brooklyn judge agreed with a lawsuit brought by a mother, Terrain Drew, who said she was misled by Sylvan's promise of guaranteed results. In court papers, Drew said she took out an $11,000 loan to pay for eight months of tutoring for her two children at a Sylvan center in Sheepshead Bay without getting the improvement she expected in their performance. In fact, her daughter was retained in the second grade because of poor test scores, according to court papers.

In its defense, Sylvan pointed to a disclaimer in its contract agreement that said their results may not be directly transferrable for a child during test-taking in their regular classroom. But Civil Court Judge Genine D. Edwards said that was not clear enough and chastised the company for its marketing promises. "Its current practices not only prey on desperate parents eager for their children to succeed in school; it capitalizes on the vulnerability of our children, and that is intolerable," ruled the judge, who ordered that the money be refunded.

These days, Sylvan makes a more generalized pledge, saying that its approach -- either in person at learning centers or through online tutoring -- "provides your child with their best chance at academic success." Sylvan corporate officials declined to comment on the change or the Brooklyn lawsuit; but Steiger, who works for the owner of the Levittown and Wading River franchises, says the new approach is more effective.

"I believe Sylvan found -- we find -- that the guarantee doesn't work for our parents in our center," Steiger explains. "Parents come to our center to help their students and they see the improvement in their students in terms of classwork, how independent they become with their homework, and their confidence. So the guarantee wasn't the reason why parents came to Sylvan."

Raising student confidence

Other large tutoring franchises on Long Island make similar claims stressing student confidence rather than guarantees. "What is best for the student guides all decisions," assures another franchise company, Huntington Learning Centers, on its website. Kumon -- with more than 20 tutoring centers on Long Island -- says it deliberately avoids promising guaranteed results.

"Parents used to say, 'Sylvan offers a guarantee, what's your guarantee?' " says James Devantier, a spokesman for New Jersey-based Kumon. "There really isn't any guarantee because you have students coming in at all different levels." He said Kumon's long-established approach builds up students' confidence but avoids any promise of guaranteed results that would create a "defeatist attitude."

Eileen Huntington says her tutoring firm -- one of the nation's biggest -- can build up a student's skills and confidence toward certain goals but has never guaranteed results.

"We don't have in writing that 'this is what we're going to guarantee for your individual child,' " explains Huntington, CEO of the New Jersey-based parent company that runs 10 Long Island centers. "What we do guarantee is that we're going to give your child the best program and work with you and work with that child to see the kind of results that we do get."

Huntington says all her tutors have top credentials, and that those who teach remedial classes are state-licensed.

The overall emphasis on test grades inside Long Island schools, says Nassau PTA's Innella, fuels parents' desire to hire expensive outside tutors. But she says parents should be wary of marketing ads touting certain results. "I'd venture to say that's impossible to do," Innella says. Nevertheless, she says, some parents fork over $4,000 to $5,000 a year for tutoring, sometimes paid out of savings or by taking a loan.

No Child Left Behind funds

While many affluent and middle-class parents pay for tutors privately, millions of dollars in outside tutoring has been funded by taxpayers in the past decade for students in low-performing school districts, often in Long Island's poor and minority neighborhoods.

One of the biggest boons for Long Island tutoring came from the federal No Child Left Behind legislation, signed into law in 2002 at the urging of Republican President George W. Bush and Democrats in Congress such as the late Sen. Edward Kennedy. As part of the No Child Left Behind law, designed to improve students' academic performance, schools with poor test grades were required to use some of this federal funding for outside tutoring. In New York, eligible students would receive about $1,000 annually for help with approved tutoring companies.

"When you find a disadvantaged child falling behind where he or she should be, there's extra money for tutoring," Bush said in January 2009, shortly before leaving office. "And across the country there's now about a half a million students benefiting from the tutoring that comes from No Child Left Behind."

Politically, the idea of outside tutors to help students in troubled schools remained popular, including with President Barack Obama's Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, though some teacher unions and local districts didn't like that the money was being diverted outside the regular classroom. The No Child Left Behind tutoring money jumped from $806 million in 2007-08 to $1.040 billion by the 2011-12 school year.

By August 2013, however, federal investigators "uncovered substantial fraud and corruption perpetrated by providers and school district officials," including false reimbursement claims for students who didn't attend after-school tutoring classes, according to a U.S. Department of Education Office of Inspector General report.

The report "identified a lack of oversight" with the billion-dollar federal tutoring effort, leaving programs "vulnerable to waste, fraud and abuse." Documents show these federal funds had proved a bonanza for many new and untested firms around the nation, including several troubled tutoring groups offering their services on Long Island.

Though tutoring is not licensed or regulated by the state, New York Department of Education officials have kept a list of 94 tutoring organizations -- most of them private, for-profit firms -- approved by the state Office of Accountability for federal No Child Left Behind funding and eligible to be selected by Long Island parents or guardians for their child's outside help.

Posted on the Internet, the list remains one of the few sources of government information for New York parents checking out tutoring firms. State officials said they reviewed the information provided by each tutoring group before the firms were placed on the annual approved No Child Left Behind provider list.

However, a Newsday review of the available state list found 15 tutoring groups with a background of legal or financial problems. For instance, TestQuest Inc., a New York City-based firm that received millions in federal tutoring money, agreed in 2013 to a $1.7 million civil fraud settlement with federal authorities after one of its employees was criminally charged with falsifying records. But TestQuest was still listed in March 2014 (the last time it was updated) as an approved tutoring provider for nine Long Island school districts.

Another firm, Champion Learning, was cited in a 2012 audit by then-New York City Comptroller John C. Liu for receiving $858,000 in "questionable payments" and for not following the No Child Left Behind guidelines in charging for outside tutoring. Champion Learning was still listed in March 2014 as a state-approved provider. Neither TestQuest or Champion could be reached for comment.

"I'm certainly concerned," says Liu, now an adjunct professor at Baruch College. "The state should provide up-to-date information that parents can rely on."

Tutoring industry spokesman Pines says the lack of adequate oversight by federal and state officials is partly to blame for the collapse of No Child Left Behind, a program which few school districts still use for outside tutoring. He faults New York State officials for not properly vetting its approved provider list.

"I think unfortunately some organizations got on to the list that, quite frankly as you look back, probably shouldn't have been," Pines said. "Once the vendors are approved, the parents shop. And they shop based on what information they may have available to them which may not be perfect. Sometimes the parents aren't as well-informed because they didn't have the information or they didn't do a deep dive into what was available to them. I hate to say this -- let the buyer beware -- but at the end of the day, they [parents] make the decision."

State education officials would not comment about the troubled firms on its approved tutoring provider list still on the Internet. But after Newsday's inquiry, state staffers recommended at a February meeting of the Board of Regents that a new law be passed by the legislature allowing them to remove their outside tutor list from the Internet.

From Internet to indictment

Of those serving Long Island, Babbage Net School Inc. -- an online tutoring firm started by a former Centereach math teacher -- is perhaps the most surprising casualty of the problems surrounding No Child Left Behind funding.

In a 2001 Newsday interview, its founder, Clifford Dittrich, touted that Babbage Net "had ushered education into the 21st century by offering online, interactive instruction in a virtual school." Students from virtually anywhere could log on to the website of Babbage, then based in Port Jefferson, and enroll in mostly enrichment courses with state-certified teachers recruited from Long Island public schools.

Like many online tutoring firms, Babbage Net benefited from the federal No Child Left Behind funding, aimed at helping struggling students in underperforming public schools. Computers were provided to some students by Babbage. Eventually, Babbage Net extended its reach to 19 states, including New York, as an approved outside tutor for 200 school districts around the nation. Babbage Net's financial success, Dittrich says, allowed him to sell his business about six years ago to two Chicago-area businessmen.

But around that same time, according to an April 2014 federal indictment, the two Chicago businessmen -- Jowhar Soultanali and his son, Kabir Kassam -- looted Babbage and another affiliated tutoring company, defrauding school districts of more than $33 million. The two were also charged with paying bribes to school officials in Texas and New Mexico, which included Caribbean cruise vacations and trips to a strip club.

From 2008 until February 2012, Babbage exploited the No Child Left Behind tutoring money by falsifying students' progress reports, failing to do proper follow-up tests, and ordering a phony computer program to doctor grades to always show student improvement, federal authorities said. The case is still pending. Neither Soultanali nor Kassam could be reached for comment. Both have pleaded not guilty.

Dittrich, who is now retired in North Carolina, says he was surprised to learn from Newsday of the federal indictment involving his old company. Court records show he is not cited in the federal case. Dittrich says he hasn't been in contact with the firm's new owners since he sold it. "There was a lot of federal oversight, so I don't know how it could go astray," he says.

Dittrich said Babbage's online approach was effective and expressed hope the federal money for outside tutoring would continue. "I think it was a very good program and it should be continued," Dittrich says. Babbage Net remains on the state-approved tutor list.

Tax-payer funded tutoring

At its height, more than 150,000 students on Long Island, New York City, and throughout the state received taxpayer-funded outside tutoring. But because of the political controversy surrounding No Child Left Behind, the Obama administration in recent years has granted a waiver to many states, including New York in 2012, to allow local districts to use these federal funds for their own educational purposes rather than outside tutoring services.

As a result on Long Island, nearly all underperforming school districts have opted out of No Child, except Central Islip.

Romano says allegations of corruption -- as well as opposition from teachers unions and school districts upset with the diversion of money to outside vendors -- is to blame for No Child's collapse.

"The teachers and the members of the school system would say, 'You took money that we would have invested in the school system in providing service for those children and moved it outside in an unregulated fashion,' " she explained.

Florence Joyner, a parent advocate in the Central Islip district and director of a nonprofit that tutors students, said low-income parents like having an outside tutor for children experiencing difficulty in class.

"We're low on the totem pole," economically, she explained. "That's why we stayed."

A tale of two firms

For the past few school years at the Central Islip Public Library, about 50 eligible students in need of academic help could be found after school at desks with Joyner's group or other outside tutors, working on their math skills or reading comprehension. This school year, fewer children are getting help. Each is allocated $1,070 in government funds for about 20 tutoring sessions. Many of these children are in the middle grades and received poor scores on state-mandated tests and Common Core standards for math and language arts.

"They don't get the help they need," Joyner says. "Their parents are either working, or don't speak the language, and education is not a priority."

Joyner believes her brand of face-to-face tutoring has much more impact rather than more impersonal online tutoring.

On a recent afternoon, Sonya Stanley watched as her 12-year-old son Eric was helped at the library by Barbara King, a tutor paid by No Child Left Behind funds. "He [Eric] qualified for it and that was a blessing, definitely a blessing, because there was no other way he would be able to be tutored," explained Sonya Stanley.

The difference between face-to-face tutoring at the library in Central Islip -- a Suffolk County community with 11 percent of its population living below the poverty line -- and the increasingly sophisticated high-tech methods by private tutoring firms such as iTutor, located in an office complex in Jericho, reflects some of the sharp social and economic divides in Long Island's tutoring business, experts say.

On a typical day at iTutor, large television screens show the images of students, seated comfortably inside their homes miles away, as they chat with tutors about their lessons. While some students seek remedial help, many others want to supplement their everyday school education by learning study skills that will help them get into a top college. Parents, many of whom already pay $10,000 or more in local school taxes, are willing to pay thousands for the best outside tutors.

"I know a lot of my friends want tutors," explains Arusha Kumria, a student at Herricks High School in New Hyde Park, talking through iTutor's electronic platform that resembles Skype, the online video service. Each week, she schedules a convenient time to converse with her tutor about her geometry lessons and other Herricks schoolwork with the aim of getting ahead of the rest of her class. "We go ahead of the teacher most of the time. So when I go back to school, I know what I'm doing and I'm usually ahead of it," explains Kumria. "So I come here to do better in class."

Owner Harry Aurora says he's proud of iTutor's state-of-the-art gadgetry featuring Ivy League-trained tutors, but recognizes the sharp difference between the students he serves and what is available for students in less-affluent sections of Long Island. "Parents would spend $10,000 or more because you don't get a second chance," he says of his customer base. "Students who are achievers -- already an A-plus student, who wants to meet and exceed the parents' expectations, or their own expectation -- that's where we can bring them premium tutors from across the nation. That premium talent is what the parents are craving for."

Gap between rich, poor

To Hofstra's Mangino, the loss of federal funds for outside tutoring on Long Island, despite its several flaws, will probably mean that the educational gap between rich and poor students will widen.

"When we have a community where resources are not abundant -- a community that is in poverty -- access to the tutoring services is limited, especially relative to wealthy districts where parents are paying out of pocket," Mangino says. "An already advantaged community can buy even more advantage by test preparation courses, tutoring, SAT preparation courses -- and all of this reinforces existing class differences."

Mangino points to several research studies questioning the current investment in high-tech learning techniques and says face-to-face teaching is usually most effective for students with learning problems.

Industry advocates such as Pines contend low-income parents and their children can be helped by online tutoring, providing a lower-cost alternative to costly personal instruction. He says computers and handheld devices are effective tools and familiar to all kids these days, not just the affluent. But Pines says he also is well aware of the growing gap in tutoring between rich and poor.

"If you ask families, they all have this dream that they want their children to do better than they did," Pines says. "It's sort of a class issue, too -- middle-class families and upper-class families have extra resources, quite frankly, to invest in their children's education through supplemental services like tutoring. So it really is a phenomena that is class distinctive, and one could argue that that's not fair."

After a recent session at Sylvan in Levittown, Allison Montalbano of Bellmore talked about the importance of tutoring on the confidence level of her 10-year-old daughter Amanda in the fifth grade.

"She's understanding more in school and it's an ego booster, too," says Montalbano, adding that she pays $200 a month for the Sylvan sessions. She hires another tutor to help her daughter with her homework. "Sometimes schooling isn't enough. Some of the elementary schools don't have the extra help after school so we have to come to a private tutor."

Although initially reluctant, Amanda was pleased to find after-school tutors could help her with math and the new academic standards more than her parents could. "I realize that I should get better, and since the Common Core is hard and my parents don't know it, I should go to a place where the people do know it," she said.

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