Private Equity, Professional Training Dominate 2012 Education Deals

K-12 technology leads all sectors of education in number of mergers and acquisitions so far this year, with private equity firms continuing to figure prominently in the new education landscape, according to a new report. But the largest sums of money were reserved for professional training companies, perhaps owing to the uncertain landscape in public and higher education. Across education, there were more transactions in the first half this year than last, but the amount of money exchanged in those deals is down, from $6.23 billion to $1.65 billion.

Those numbers come courtesy of Berkery Noyes, an investment-banking firm based in New York City that releases biannual reports on mergers and acquisitions in education. Of the 126 deals so far this year, 24 were in K-12 education technology and media, while 12 came in K-20 services and five in K-12 institutions.

Most notably, Archipelago Learning, which provides Web-based assessment and learning tools, merged with education technology company PLATO Learning, in a transaction worth $291 million. One of the highest-profile and controversial acquisitions was learning management system company Blackboard Inc.’s purchase of Moodlerooms and NetSpot, two open-source platforms for education software. Also, Wireless Generation acquired Intel-Assess, an assessment content company. All of those transactions signaled a trend toward consolidation among major companies possibly looking to shore up a more comprehensive set of offerings as the implementation of Common Core State Standards approaches.

Blackboard’s acquisitions were, in essence, made by its parent company, the private-equity firm Providence Equity Partners, which purchased the company for $1.64 billion last year. That deal came in the second half of last year and nearly equals the value of all education transactions this year across sectors, contributing to the sharp decline between this half-year and last. A private-equity firm also accounted for the largest known transaction this year: Montagu Private Equity purchased The College of Law of England and Wales, Europe’s largest provider of legal education.

Private-equity firms accounted for 31 percent of transactions this year. There’s been a 32 percent increase in transactions involving corporate or professional training companies this year, also including Pearson’s purchase of GlobalEnglish Corporation, a language training company for businesses.

The size of the transactions in professional training could be attributed to the uncertain funding situation of both K-12 schools and colleges, with education companies looking elsewhere to make big splashes. But the high volume in K-12 transactions could increase as companies position themselves for new federal grant programs.

“There will be increased interest in K-12 as the latest round of Race to the Top grants and No Child Left Behind waivers allow for more immediate federal funding to certain areas within the sector,” Peter Yoon, a managing director focused on education at Berkey Noyes, said in statement.

Regardless of this year’s activity, Berkery Noyes estimated there was $10 billion in education transactions last year, equal to that of 2010, but about double the amount from 2009. (Additionally, venture capital transaction values in K-12 increased from $130 million in 2010 to $334 million last year, according to GSV Advisors.) Because it’s a relatively small sample size that can be skewed by big acquisitions, the transaction amount in a given field can be volatile—it looks unlikely this year will meet the pace of the past two years— but there are signs that activity in the education sector is picking up.

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