Consultants Steer Parents Through Maze of School Choice
As public K-12 options expand, parents pay for guidance
The rapid expansion of charter schools and other public school options is fueling growth in another industry: education consulting.
Education consultants, once used primarily by families to help them select and get into elite private schools, are now being hired by parents in New York City, Denver, and Washington to help them navigate a plethora of public school options.
Although business is booming for a few savvy entrepreneurs who have gotten a foothold in the public-education-consultant market early, others worry that consultants are a symptom of a system that's perhaps getting too complicated for parents, and could potentially put low-income families who can't afford such services at a competitive disadvantage.
"I think middle-income families who wouldn't have paid for education consulting [before] are now because of the complexity of the options," said Elizabeth Perelstein, the founder of a White Plains, N.Y.-based consulting firm, School Choice International. "No parent wants their child to be at a disadvantage."
To be successful, education consultants have to be in the know: They research curricula, visit schools, track achievement-related data, and are wired into local parent networks. They help families identify schools that match their children's needs and demystify application and enrollment processes that can differ vastly from what has been the norm in the education system for decades.
Traditionally, education consultants have focused on matching families to private schools or universities. In some cases, they work with companies relocating to a new city, while still others work exclusively with families of students with special needs.
But as choices have grown in the public school sector, so has business for education consultants like Laura Barr. A former teacher, she started a company called e.Merging Educational Consulting in Denver in 2007.
"As the choices get more specific and defined by philosophy, parents have gotten curious, excited, and overwhelmed," said Ms. Barr. With such a variety of options ranging from International Baccalaureate schools to language-immersion charters "a lot of parents want to know, is that going to be OK for my child?"
She helps parents sort through, and research, regular district school options as well.
Ms. Barr theorizes that the rising demand she's seen for consultants to help find a public school also has to do with the economy: Middle-income families still recovering from the Great Recession that perhaps could have once afforded private schooling no longer can, she said.
The type of client who hires a consultant to find a public school might conjure images of overly ambitious parents—sometimes popularly referred to as a "tiger mom" or a helicopter parent—but Ms. Barr said her clients aren't necessarily "overachievers."
In many cases, they're just confused.
"Being new to the process, we didn't know how to even start our search," said Lori Leopold, a Denver doctor and mother of a 5-year-old boy who will enter kindergarten in the fall. He's the couple's only child, so Ms. Leopold and her husband have no prior experience in selecting schools in an all-choice environment like Denver's.
Ms. Leopold said she would have felt more confident if picking an elementary school was like selecting a university, where one weighs factors such as academics, faculty, and prestige.
But Ms. Leopold said she and her husband had no idea how to evaluate a kindergarten classroom.
"When we started going into kindergartens, they were talking about being nice to each other and being good to the Earth … totally different ballgame."
The Leopolds hired Ms. Barr, who observed their son in his preschool classroom, gave him a series of personality and learning-style tests, and had the family fill out a detailed questionnaire on what they valued in an education.
"When you have all that information, and then with [Ms. Barr's] vast knowledge of the Denver school system, she's able to direct you to a much smaller pool of schools," Ms. Leopold said.
The Leopolds have boiled their list down to two private schools and five public schools. To get into one of the public options on their list, they'll be entering into Denver's citywide lottery system for most public schools—regular and charter.
Denver is an early adopter of a relatively recent innovation called a universal or common-enrollment system.
Such systems create a single process with one application and one set of deadlines to apply for most district, charter, and magnet schools in a given city. An algorithm is used to match students to schools.
The Leopolds are similar to many of the clients who seek out E.V. Downey's help in the District of Columbia. Originally an administrator at a private school, Ms. Downey got into the education consulting business about three years ago, expecting to help parents seeking a private education for their children. But, she soon saw ample demand for her services in the public school arena. Most of Ms. Downey's clients are families in which both parents work and they're enrolling their first child in the school system. They aren't necessarily affluent.
"I would say almost always middle-of-the-road, middle class," Ms. Downey said of her typical clients. "A lot of them express to me that they are committed to living in the city, want diverse schools for their kids, but can't afford private schools."
Ms. Downey charges around $200 for a basic, two-hour consultation on public schools—it's $250 if a parent also wants to extend the session by half an hour and discuss private school options. To walk parents through the entire process, including multiple meetings and being on call to answer questions, the price can climb as high as $1,750.
Ms. Downey also holds group lecture sessions which cost $35 for a parent attending on his or her own, and $55 for couples.
At a recent lecture session were the Schinders, a pair of Washington architects and parents to a 3-year-old boy who will enter the District of Columbia's prekindergarten program in the fall.
"I'm looking for schools that offer languages, I'm from Argentina, and I want my son to get Spanish at school," said Ileana Schinder, who is expecting the couple's second child in March. "[Ms. Downey] gave us very pointed information about schools that are totally under the radar."
Although both Ms. Schinder and Ms. Leopold, the Denver parent, generally believe school choice has improved public schooling in their respective cities, both admit that this brave new world has its drawbacks and complications.
"Everybody says that they want choice, but with choice comes more responsibility," said Maia Cucchiara, a sociologist and an associate professor of urban education at Temple University in Philadelphia. "And a responsibility for a quality education is shifted in a choice context from the school district to the parent."
Affordability a Barrier
With that responsibility comes growing anxiety to choose the right path, said Ms. Cucchiara, and many parents feel that a poor decision could have serious implications for their children.
Under those circumstances, Ms. Cucchiara said she's not surprised more are turning to outside experts for guidance.
Of course, many families living in high-choice cities do not have the means to hire a consultant.
"We've gotten a huge number of inquiries from low-income families—they find us on the Internet," said Ms. Perelstein. "We get a lot of inquiries from families who want help but can't pay for the service."
As part of her job, Ms. Perelstein has attended town hall meetings in New York City neighborhoods where charter schools are on the rise, and she said she's seen firsthand some of the frustration families feel over the impossibility of navigating all their options.
"I think there are unintended consequences of well-intentioned programs," she said. "I've lived long enough to know that choices aren't always choices." Ms. Perelstein founded her company 17 years ago in London and has watched the education consulting landscape evolve over that time. Originally, School Choice International served families and corporations relocating abroad, before expanding into consulting work on private schools, special education, and universities.
Now, about 15 to 20 percent of School Choice International's business comes from families looking for consultations on public schools.
And for her part, Laura Barr, the Denver-based consultant, doesn't see business slowing down anytime soon.
"I'm busy," she said while riding in a cab in New York City. A company hired Ms. Barr to come and talk to a group of employees who are relocating to Denver.
"I think it's going to be a growing profession," she said, "especially in cities."
Vol. 34, Issue 20, Pages 1, 11Published in Print: February 4, 2015, as Demand for Choice Consultants Grows