Making Sense of the K-12 Buying Process: Advice for Ed-Tech Vendors at SXSWedu

Senior Editor

Austin, Texas

Many ed-tech companies look at the size of districts’ yearly budgets—$50 million, $100 million, $200 million for small or mid-sized systems—and see no reason why a vendor won’t be able to get a healthy slice of that money carved out for a purchase of their product.

In reality, there are many, many reasons why those providers might not get what they want.

A group of K-12 administrators reminded attendees at the South by Southwest Education summit of the complex pressures they face, and talked about how far too many ed-tech vendors fail to do and say the things that would improve their odds of landing a contract.

Take the Freehold Township school system in New Jersey. The 3,900-student district, as superintendent Ross Kasun explained, has an annual budget of around $72 million, but roughly 90 percent of that is tied up in personnel expenses and fixed costs.

The total amount the district has to spend on various ed-tech hardware and software in any given year is usually only around $1.5 million.

In any given year, Kasun told the audience, his district might get to buy one major product in a core subject area–or perhaps two. “That’s all we can afford,” he explained.

If there was a common theme in the advice offered by Kasun and others on the SWSWedu panel, titled “How to Make EdTech Purchasing Painless and Effective,” it was that companies need to work hard to understand specific district challenges—particularly budget limitations, and the need for product support—and think of creative ways to address them.

Among the specific bits of counsel the K-12 officials gave to ed-tech companies:

SXSWedu, 3d printer
A 3D printer in the Tinkerline Studios booth at SXSWedu. Erich Schlegel for Education Week.

Districts want vendors who put “skin in the game.” That’s what Adam Fried, superintendent of the Harrington Park, N.J., school district said he expects from vendors. Are they devoting financial resources to make a pilot of full implementation of a digital tool work? Are they providing enough professional development?

“There has to be a two-way kind of piece to this,” Fried said. Districts need to feel that a vendor is invested, and that “you’re not just hocking the next Hyundai.”

Don’t pressure a district to rush through a pilot or product trial. If districts agree to pilot a product, they often want it piloted over a full-year, so they have enough data and time to study it, said Tammy Rush, middle school math coordinator for the Hillsborough County, Fla., schools.

“A lot of companies come to me in January” wanting to start a pilot, Rush said. But in such a short period of time, she wonders, “how are [they] going to show an impact?”

Alas, many companies don’t account for the long cycle for piloting products, and negotiating terms with districts, added Bharani Rajakumar, the CEO of the company LearnBop, who moderated the panel.

Prepare for those delays, and “build that into your financial model,” he said. “How much money are you burning [through] while that’s happening?”

Discretionary budgets for teachers vary enormously. Many companies today try to crack the K-12 market by giving products away to teachers, or selling to them and hoping educators will lobby administrators to make district-wide purchases.

Some teachers are given pockets of public money to spend on classroom products; one panelist said teachers in her district have a couple hundred dollars apiece to spend. In other districts, like Fried’s in New Jersey, that money is not there.

“Everything we do has to be very systematic,” he said. And while the “grassroots voice” in product decisions weighs heavily on district administrators, educators in many cases don’t control their own purse strings.

Don’t focus on selling only to the biggest districts. Many vendors seem intent on selling to major districts, because that’s where the biggest opportunities for profit are. But it’s often smaller systems—like those that dot the landscape in New Jersey—that are nimble, and open to innovative ideas from companies, Fried argued.

Worth noting: Roughly 70 percent of the nation’s districts have 2,500 or fewer students.

“If you come with those good ideas,” he said, “we’re going to pivot with you.”


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