Federal grants benefiting education consultants

Over the past two years, private education consultants took home 35 percent — or $9.4 million — of the $26.6 million in federal money meant to turn around failing schools in Colorado.

The money from the U.S. Department of Education is paying for instructional coaches for teachers, leadership coaches for principals, analysts to pore over test data and pricey three-day professional-development seminars on changing school culture.

Most states don’t track how much these failing schools pay private education consultants, but of the dozen or so that do, the average is about 25 percent of the grant money.

Education reform experts say consultants can play an important role in improving schools, but they are disturbed that neither the federal government nor the majority of states keeps track of the spending.

The education department requires every school receiving the funds to report back about attendance, student achievement and disciplinary actions, but so far, the agency doesn’t have the data. Meanwhile, the federal government makes no stipulations about how much districts can spend on consultants, and the agency has not rescinded money from any state, even when school districts failed to show progress.

Some analysts have criticized the portion of funds going to consultants, as well as the lack of accounting in the federal School Improvement Grant program, which is meant to be a three-year rescue effort.

Education policy analyst Diane Ravitch, a former assistant U.S. secretary of education, called the program “a bonanza for entrepreneurs and testing companies.”

Meanwhile, critics say a fundamental flaw in the program is that an unprecedented amount of money is flowing to failing schools with infrastructure and leadership problems, and those schools must spend it within the three-year grant period. The ability to turn themselves around isn’t always there, no matter the size of the grant or how qualified the consultants are.

Keith Owen, Colorado’s associate education commissioner for accountability and improvement, said another problem is that the money goes directly to individual schools, so reforms are schoolwide, not districtwide, making lasting change more difficult to achieve.