Friday, October 25, 2013

Foundations and Feds Push “Freemium” Deals on Districts to Privatize Policymaking

Foundations, Feds, and interest groups have a plan that will create more room for private companies to influence what schools buy.  And in an effort to facilitate such relationships, the Education Industry Association (EIA) has announced a new initiative aimed at helping education companies sell more to public schools by changing the rules on how sales get approved. EIA, in fact, has been awarded a special grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation under an initiative created by the Feds to spur digital innovation in schools.  The problem (as defined in the announcement):

Why should it take 6 months, 10 months or even longer to complete deals with school districts? How can a start-up lacking [a] national sales force and without an established rep gain traction with school buyers?  How can companies access educators and hope to have them fall in love with your solution, and convert these pilots and freemium deals into revenue?

Put differently, the established public policy process for getting buy-in from district staff and teachers before large purchases (for which principals can’t just write a check) is, according to the EIA, too cumbersome. It is, as we have heard so many times in reference to public policy and its perceived failures, overly bureaucratic.

To date, EIA’s marketing campaign to influence the procurement process has been slow but steadily building, most recently through its announcement of an alliance with the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), which represents over 13,000 school district superintendents.  In this scheme, EIA offers school districts a list of approved members (business seal of approval) in exchange for more open access to districts by those vendors. Vendors, in turn, secure district contacts whereby district administrators purportedly get providers with a demonstrated record of effectiveness.

In May 2013, the Education Industry Association wrote to its members,

EIA will recommend high quality suppliers of school services and products, who are in good standing with EIA, for the AASA School Solutions Center, the go-to resource used by district buyers when they seek vendors. This is the first-time the SSC will promote instructional services, ed-tech solutions and academic products. Accepted companies may promote this AASA connection to local district decision-makers and AASA will make door-opener introductions on your behalf. In addition, vendors receive booth space at the annual conference and are highlighted in AASA publications to their membership.

There is a lot more going on here than chummy relationships to reduce red tape. There is a long history of schools purchasing textbooks, test scanners, and grade books.  But we are at a very different juncture– a kind of watershed moment in which the private industry is focused on transforming the agenda and policy adoption process at the local level.

It is a brilliant strategy really. If you can find a niche as a broker between vendors and schools, much else opens up in the way of recommending the purchase of particular products and transforming contracts from one-time purchases to expensive leases that require upgrades. This post here is part of a longer chapter through which, as Gary Anderson, Stephen Ball, and Christopher Lubienski, among others have written, the very nature of public policy is transformed.  Accordingly, privatization is not limited to goods and services, rather, it includes policymaking itself. The private sector’s involvement with point-of-sale processes brings it one step further into decision-making around the use of public funds– beyond influence on agenda setting and policy adoption and deep into policy formulation and evaluation.

The stakes are high everywhere but particularly in big central cities. Providers gravitate to cities like New York and Los Angeles because cities with more students mean more revenue.  For example, many companies selling technology charge by user fees.  That is, the more students or teachers in a district, the higher the revenue – even if the unit price is low.  Charter schools get money based on Average Daily Attendance (ADA) or seat time. If we follow this thread further, we can see why organizations like EIA would want more influence over the rules for contracting in public education. Streamlining public policy around the procurement process opens up markets, and not just for the start-ups referenced in the EIA announcement. 

Streamlining could eventually involve making big sales as customers click “BUY” rather than having to go through multiple presentations to district leaders in an effort to maintain transparency. But, making the decision about whether every child in a school district should have a tablet over a music program or smaller class sizes is very different from making the decision to purchase staples and pencils. The interest of education foundations – like the Gates Foundation – and the Federal government in the EIA initiative is telling. It suggests a broader agenda at play in reimagining the local in local governance. The marketing letter from the EIA announcing the partnership uses the language of a “freeium offer.”  But public policy is meant to be deliberative and transparent. It shouldn’t be for sale.