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Schools 'Could Do Just What We Do if They Had the Same Resources'

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It has only been in the past 20 years or so that business entrepreneurs have capitalized on the idea of marketing tutoring and other educational services on a grand scale.

In 1970, Kenneth A. Martyn, a former professor of education, opened a supplemental-learning center in Huntington Beach, Calif. The success of his efforts soon led him to expand operations to nearby communities.

Encyclopaedia Brittanica Inc. acquired Mr. Martyn's company, the American Learning Corporation, in 1985. Today it has almost 100 centers, all bearing the Brittanica name, in eight states. Virtually all the centers are directly owned by the company.

The largest firm in the field, the Sylvan Learning Corporation, started in a Portland, Ore., suburb in 1979. Growing quickly though franchising arrangements, it now has 450 corporate and franchised centers in 44 states and Canada.

Sylvan was purchased in 1985 by Kinder-Care Learning Centers Inc. of Montgomery, Ala., a leading national day-care chain.

Another major firm, the Huntington Learning Centers Inc. of Oradell, N.J., has expanded to about 100 centers in 26 states since its founding in 1977.

Most observers attribute the striking growth of the supplemental-learning industry to its ability to give students much more intensive assistance than the public schools normally can offer.

"The public schools could do exactly what we do if they had the same resources we do," said F. Eugene Montgomery, president of Sylvan, whose centers offer pupil-teacher ratios no greater than three to one.

Costly Assistance

Such concentrated help does not come cheaply, of course. Services cost $33 an hour at Brittanica.

But for parents like Donna Algoso, who paid $800 to enroll her son in a reading-skills program at the Brittanica center in Falls Church, Va., the expense is well worth it.

"He has problems in some areas and we thought we would catch it early," she said. "There are a lot of things you can buy for your children that will be broken by next year. Their education won't break next year."

Many observers worry, however, about the fairness of allowing some students to get such extra help while others' parents cannot afford it no matter how strong their commitment to education.

"Certainly there is an inequity about the private learning centers at this time," said Dale Boatright, assistant director of educational issues for the American Federation of Teachers.

But others say the disparities may be unavoidable. "That is a reality in a democratic, competitive society. The more affluent have greater access" to the best in education, said Robert R. Spillane, superintendent of schools in Fairfax County, Va., which is adjacent to Falls Church.

"What we should do is balance up rather than level down," he said.

Most of the supplemental-learning companies appear to be doing well, with ambitious expansion plans.

Huntington expects to open 50 new centers a year until it reaches 350 to 400 centers.

Sylvan plans to open 70 to 90 new centers this year, extending into communities previously considered too small to support one.

"The average center did twice the volume in 1988 it did in 1985," said Mr. Montgomery. "We expect to double the average center's revenue again by 1991."

At least one firm has run into financial problems, however. Brittanica has posted a loss in recent months, and plans to close some centers.--mw

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