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A <i> Real </i> Investment in Education : Finance: By putting their portfolios where their progeny are, parents can cash in on a big national trend.

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Maybe by late September you feel that you’ve already invested enough in “education.” You’ve paid hefty tuition bills and spent more than you want to think about on trendy backpacks and binders.

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But some analysts make a compelling argument for really investing in education now. By putting your portfolio where your progeny are, you can profit a bit from everyone else’s back-to-school spending. At the same time, you’ll cash in on a big national trend.

“The education business in the U.S. is big, is growing, and more importantly is changing. In our view, it is this process of change that creates the most exciting business and investment opportunities,” Baltimore investment banking firm Alex. Brown & Sons says in a new research report.

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It notes that the population of school-age children is growing at the fastest rate in nearly 30 years. Federal, state and local governments are relaxing tight constraints they had on school spending, and schools and parents are investing in new technological learning tools.

Sweeping societal trends will put money in the hands of private companies, says Peter Appert, an Alex. Brown analyst in San Francisco. School budgets will shift slightly away from salaries and toward “productivity” materials, including software, computers and books.

In addition, yuppie parents will shift their spending away from cappuccino machines and toward the computer programs that their tots are using in elementary school.

So, concludes Appert, don’t just buy the programs, buy into the program.

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Peter Wood, an industry analyst for Standard & Poor’s, concurs. “The market for software that caters specifically to children has experienced significant growth in recent years and should continue to grow in the years ahead.”

Wood notes that the top selling CD-ROM multimedia titles all are children’s games and learning programs.

Wood says children’s software, in particular, is a highly seasonal business, with company performance strongest in the current August-to-January period. In spring, schools start placing their orders for next year, so the first quarter of the year is slow.

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Here are some educational investment ideas from Appert and Wood. As you peruse the list, be willing to wait patiently for bargains.

* Microsoft Corp. This company is much more than kids’ software, of course, as it publishes operating and business software for all the major computer systems. Nevertheless, Wood labels Microsoft “the most threatening” new kid on the kids’ software block.

He says Microsoft will make inroads into kids’ products with television advertising and selling and free school-based family seminars that Wood likens to the “Tupperware” approach to marketing.

* Broderbund Software Inc., in San Rafael, Calif., is the largest and best-known children’s education software producer, with products such as Print Shop, Treehouse and the popular Carmen Sandiego series. With new games in development, Broderbund is eyeing the nouveau “edutainment” segment of the market and could be a good long-term investment.

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* Scholastic Corp. This is Appert’s personal favorite and not just because his 4-year-old twin daughters play with some of its programs. This education publisher has long had a lock on school book clubs, is a leading publisher of children’s nonfiction here and in Britain and has made smart alliances with Microsoft and Internet to provide CD-ROM and on-line services for schoolchildren. Scholastic also owns the currently hot “Magic School Bus” series, coming soon to a television near you.

* Sylvan Learning Systems. This company has a different piece of the educational pie, as one of the largest tutorial services in North America. The firm franchises storefront “learning centers” and is also starting to get in on the public school contract market, delivering specialized services to schools that buy them directly.

Sylvan also is in the first year of a 10-year exclusive contract with Educational Testing Service to provide computer-based tests around the world.


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