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Education Policy Design: The High Stakes Business Of Educating Students

The American education system is experiencing vast transformation requiring schools to rethink how they teach students, evaluate the education marketplace, and exercise fiduciary responsibilities at the state and district levels. The net neutrality policy reversal from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and continuing implementation of the requirements associated with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provide a sampling of the ever-expanding legislative canvas impacting education on a massive scale.

These reforms are not accidental, but rather the product of substantial federal and state-specific policies. These dynamic policy shifts mirror the new public policy arena in which elected officials are reworking the political playbook by rethinking, rebuilding and challenging legacy institutions. Education officials and education technology companies alike continue to ponder how to successfully engage one another and those authoring legislation.

Next month’s annual installment of the ASU+GSV Summit should once again prove that questions remain, as they did in 2017, over the direction federal policy will take and subsequent reactions by decision makers in the education sector. There are significant dollars at stake for those building edtech and those charged with selecting technology to usher in the future of teaching and learning.

The economic landscape of education is significant. From 2010 to 2016, over $2.3 billion was invested in K-12 education technology companies in the U.S., according to EdSurge’s intensive State of EdTech report, and when including edtech companies serving the postsecondary market, total investments in 2016 alone surpassed the $1 billion mark across 138 venture deals. A report from EdTechXGlobal and IBIS Capital has forecasted the global edtech market to exceed $250 billion by 2020. The intersection of market interest, active policy, and a new, savvier group of education leaders puts legislative practice and engagement at a premium.

Yet, in the face of these reforms, many educational authorities and market-serving companies interact with the legislative process with outdated tactics, limited creativity, and mixed results. There are, however, school districts and education companies capitalizing on this new horizon by engaging in the policy creation process, yielding tremendous value for American education and their respective organizations.

Active Engagement Creates Better Opportunities

Adam Giery, Partner with Strategos Group, a national consulting firm specializing in technology and education, routinely interfaces with school district leaders, education companies and policy makers. Giery provides strategic insights to companies and school districts as they attempt to understand and navigate both current and proposed legislation.

According to Giery, “Education companies founded on disruption seeking to meaningfully engage in the legislative process forgo their creativity and undertake a traditional legislative engagement plan: meetings, follow up, more meetings. While a basic tenet of advocacy, it can be a low value transaction for both the organization and legislative leader.”

He added that organizations should be asking one question: “What is the value in government advocacy? As in, ‘how can our organization create value for the political process and what can we yield from our dutiful work?’ Inserting your expertise to improve a core function of education creates better policy, develops a deeper understanding by both parties, and potentially a new opportunity for your organization.”

The organizations that prove to be most effective are those that actively engage in the design and development of policy. Giery believes that this intentional approach creates superior public policy and a market edge for organizations bold enough to engage. District leaders find themselves in much the same position as edtech companies, trying to establish a comprehensive and persistent path of engagement with policymakers.

Identifying The Players and Determining Appropriate Roles

Dr. Tom Shelton, former Superintendent of the second-largest school district in Kentucky and current Executive Director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents, shares Giery’s perspective that it’s important to build and maintain productive relationships with those who integrate public policy into district and corporate practices.

Shelton, however, adds caution as a key variable in the approach needed from state and local education agencies: “As a superintendent balances the many priorities that require their time and attention, the legislative process can be an opportunity to obtain direction, support, and resources but so often becomes a political quagmire filled with personal agendas that become, at the least, noise, but often a complete distraction from the real business of schools.”

This common frustration from education leaders is shared with education companies, asserts Giery, by limited publicly available information and a myriad of potential lobbyists seeking to acquire their next client. Essentially, this creates a market in which organizations are not apprised of the contacts, counsel, and capacity necessary to achieve their objectives.

“Generally speaking, most lobbyists enter the profession through two avenues: contacts or content. The ‘contacts’ lobbyists generally trade on their relationships with specific individuals. ‘Content’ lobbyists are issue-specific, often consulted for policy development.”

Giery believes it’s not possible to provide a definitive evaluation of which lobbying style outperforms the other, but it is critical that advocates are aligned with organizational needs and missions.

Like the private sector, a school district’s role in engaging lobbyists and, more broadly, policy leaders, becomes an artful dance between hope and reality, according to Shelton. “A Superintendent learns to become adept at managing shrinking resources and leading change or they won’t survive the demands placed on them by micromanaging legislators and others,” he explains.

Finding The Right Approach

To be clear, the core fundamentals of ‘blocking and tackling’ will always remain a function of the legislative process, but expecting a lobbyist to serve as a policy magician is unrealistic. Giery warns, “ Ignoring the interplay between the business, practice, and policy driving education is at the peril of each respective entity. Savvy schools, districts, and companies servicing the education market have to make legislative literacy a key and active component of their work.”

The opportunity cost of not engaging in this process only becomes more evident as the investment dollars increase for newer, more compelling ways to integrate technology into the education ecosystem. Policy design embedded with the thought leadership and know-how of industry and sector-specific expertise brings students closer to having the societal and economic impact desired on a national scale to fruition. It behooves all education sector leaders to seek out guidance on policy engagement, and proactively participate in the process.