The rapid growth of charter schools and other public school options is contributing to the expansion of the education consulting industry. Education consultants, who were previously hired by families seeking admission to prestigious private schools, are now being sought after by parents in New York City, Denver, and Washington to help them navigate the numerous public school options available. While some entrepreneurs in the education consulting industry are thriving, there are concerns that consultants are a symptom of a system that has become overly complex for parents, potentially putting low-income families at a disadvantage if they cannot afford these services.
Elizabeth Perelstein, founder of School Choice International, a consulting firm based in White Plains, New York, believes that middle-income families are now seeking education consulting services due to the complexity of the options available. She states that no parent wants their child to be at a disadvantage. Successful education consultants must be knowledgeable about the education system. They conduct research on curricula, visit schools, analyze achievement-related data, and have connections within parent networks. They assist families in finding schools that meet their children’s needs and demystify the application and enrollment processes, which can vary greatly from the traditional education system.
Traditionally, education consultants focused on matching families with private schools or universities. However, with the expansion of choices in the public school sector, there has been a rise in demand for education consultants like Laura Barr. Barr, a former teacher, founded e.Merging Educational Consulting in Denver in 2007. She helps parents navigate the increasing variety of public school options, including International Baccalaureate schools and language-immersion charters. She also assists parents in evaluating regular district school options. Barr believes that the growing demand for education consultants to help find public schools is influenced by the economy. Middle-income families who may have been able to afford private schooling in the past are now seeking alternatives due to financial constraints.
The clients who hire education consultants to find public schools are not necessarily overachieving parents. Many are simply confused and unsure where to begin their search. Lori Leopold, a doctor and mother in Denver, hired Laura Barr to help her find a kindergarten for her 5-year-old son. The Leopolds were new to the process and felt overwhelmed. They had no experience selecting schools in an environment with multiple choices like Denver. They would have felt more confident if the process was similar to selecting a university, where factors such as academics, faculty, and prestige can be considered. However, evaluating a kindergarten classroom was a different challenge for them. After observing their son in preschool and assessing his personality and learning style, Barr provided the Leopolds with a narrowed-down list of schools based on their values and preferences. The Leopolds have now shortlisted two private schools and five public schools. To gain admission to one of their preferred public options, they will participate in Denver’s citywide lottery system for most public schools, including regular and charter schools.
Denver has been an early adopter of a modern innovation known as a universal or common-enrollment system. These systems streamline the school application process by creating a single application with one set of deadlines for most district, charter, and magnet schools in the city. An algorithm is used to match students with appropriate schools.
E.V. Downey, an education consultant based in the District of Columbia, has found that many of her clients are similar to the Leopold family. Originally, Ms. Downey focused her services on families seeking a private education for their children. However, she quickly realized that there was a high demand for her assistance in the public school sector. Most of her clients are working parents who are enrolling their first child into the school system. They are typically middle-class families who want diverse schools for their children but cannot afford private education.
Ms. Downey charges around $200 for a two-hour consultation on public schools, with an additional $50 if a parent wants to extend the session by half an hour to discuss private school options. For a comprehensive service that includes multiple meetings and being available to answer questions, the price can go up to $1,750. She also offers group lecture sessions, priced at $35 for individual parents and $55 for couples.
At a recent lecture session, the Schinders, a couple of architects from Washington, attended with their 3-year-old son who will start prekindergarten in the fall. Mrs. Schinder expressed her desire to find schools that offer language programs, specifically Spanish, as she is from Argentina. She mentioned that Ms. Downey provided valuable information about schools that are not widely known.
Both Ms. Schinder and Ms. Leopold, the Denver parent mentioned earlier, believe that school choice has improved public schooling in their respective cities. However, they also acknowledge that this new world of options has its challenges. Maia Cucchiara, a sociologist and associate professor of urban education at Temple University, explains that although people want choice, it comes with the responsibility of finding a quality education, shifting the burden from the school district to the parent.
This increased responsibility in choosing the right path causes growing anxiety among parents, according to Ms. Cucchiara. Many parents fear that making a poor decision could have serious consequences for their children. As a result, more parents are turning to outside experts for guidance.
Unfortunately, not all families can afford to hire a consultant. Ms. Perelstein, an education consultant, mentions that her company receives a significant number of inquiries from low-income families who cannot pay for their services. She believes that there are unintended consequences of well-intentioned programs, and that choices are not always as straightforward as they seem.
Ms. Perelstein founded her company 17 years ago in London, initially serving families and corporations relocating abroad. Over time, the company expanded to include consulting on private schools, special education, and universities. Currently, 15 to 20 percent of School Choice International’s business comes from families seeking consultations on public schools. Laura Barr, another education consultant based in Denver, predicts that the demand for these services will continue to grow, especially in cities.
"It’s going to be a growing profession," she said confidently.