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Jeanne Allen on NYC’s Edtech Scene, Empowering Teachers and Tax Reform

By Jenny Abamu     Dec 19, 2017

This year, Americans seem to be watching government processes closer than they have in the past. Every week, some policy maker, some legislative vote or confirmation hearing is trending on Twitter and Facebook. But Jeanne Allen, founder of the Center for Education Reform has been closely monitoring and evaluating education policy for over 30 years. She is no rookie.

As a staunch education reformer pushing the school choice movement forward, Allen is no friend to teachers unions and school board associations—arguing that they maintain the status quo, or change too slowly for her taste. EdSurge recently talked with Allen about the changes she sees in public schools, and how those changes are impacting education technology. And she offered a sneak peek at what she's expecting from New York City's big edtech conference this year.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. Listen to a complete version of the interviews below, or on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher).

EdSurge: This week is New York edtech week, where educators, academic researchers, and other company leaders will gather in the Big Apple to wrap up the year. What are your expectations for this years' event and where is the discussion heading?

Allen: It's part speed date, part brokering and connecting with people who can help you solve your biggest pain points if you happen to be in education, or if you happen to be in edtech, schools and school leaders who can serve as your echo chamber or your proof point for whether what you're doing can happen, and mixed with a bunch of investors walking around looking for the next greatest idea.

It's dynamic and interesting and lots of people converging who have never had a chance to meet yet, and so that's what makes it particularly exciting.

As someone who is on the board of StartEd Accelerator, what are you seeing in the New York City edtech scene evolving?

People talk about Silicon Valley being the really cutting-edge technology place and location, but really New York encompasses a much more global view. First of all, you've got a lot of your financiers, investors there as well, you have people from all over the world coming through. You've got some of your best universities in the world, including NYU, and you've got your largest school systems right nearby.

It really is this great ecosystem. What we see coming out of, not just New York, is people trying to augment and solve some of the biggest issues facing educators. For example, we have a company working on how to make reading logs and reading much more accessible for students and allow parents and teachers to track their reading in real time.

We have folks doing phenomenal stuff with math education. We have someone doing virtual reality. We have a company that's really helping to turn girls on much more with science and technology by helping them start to create their own maker sites.

There's a variety of things that they're showing us can and should be done throughout education, whether it be in pre-K to 12 or higher education or just external from the classroom.

You are a staunch advocate for school choice. You made comments in the past saying, Washington needs to loosen the regulations on districts so they're able to provide options for parents. Now, I'm just going to dive deeper into that a little bit, if Washington does loosen regulations on alternative school models, the onus may fall on parents to hold these schools accountable. I've done a few stories on this in the past, and this is a conclusion that some researchers have come to. How can school districts and policymakers prepare and empower parents to be able to be the ones to hold schools accountable if Washington chooses to loosen the reigns a bit?

Innovation can occur, is able to occur anywhere, and part of what we've learned, through some 26 years of the public charter schooling movement, as well as other school choice efforts, is that to really be able to push the envelope, to be nimble, to be flexible, you need to be loosened up from many of the strings that tend to tie people's hands. Some of those strings are real. They come from some small line in federal law that turns into a regulation that turns into a rule that turns into a habit. Some of them are just habitual.

We thought that this is the way we had to teach science, or we thought this is the way we had to structure our class. And some of them are just because we had not really invited educators, who can be incredibly creative, to dare to dream, to re-cast the way they see education. A lot of it is because we are measuring a couple or one or two fixed points in time to see how well they're doing.

And so education doesn't tend to be a risk venture. It doesn't seem to be someplace where you have lots of time for people to iterate and provide feedback. And so we have learned in the charter school world as well as through higher education [that flexibility] allows people to really develop and implement many of the new tools and services without having to worry about whether or not they're violating some real or perceived law or rule.

What we've said to the federal government as well as many state governments is look, even though you're not responsible for 100 percent of the money, in fact, you're only responsible for only about 10 percent, you probably are responsible for a lot of behaviors happening because you wield such a heavy stick. So why don't you loosen a lot of those rules and regulations (some of them are just guidance) and let people understand, even if it's already the case, that they have much more wide latitude than they might normally think. And sometimes, just by doing that, you tend to release people from some fear that a federal bureaucrat or someone in the state is gonna pick up the phone and say "No, that's not how you were supposed to spend that money." Or "You're in violation of XYZ title."

You bring up some really interesting points. Can you give me an example of a specific regulation that you see that hampered people from innovating?

Let's talk about professional development. There's money for professional development at the federal level, and oftentimes when those monies are allocated, there are some specific uses of funding that are actually enumerated in law. And then regulators go further and say the practice of funding professional development must include the following things, even if the following things weren't actually in the law, and that's the first mistake.

And then what will happen is a school district will call up and say, "There's a company that walked in. They do it online." Or "They do it outside of the classroom." Or "We don't really want to spend an extra day we want to do it this way." And then the feds will say "Based on my reading of the Federal Regulation 1234, you're not allowed to do that." And then they'll issue guidance saying, "Based on our guidance, we told New York City this, we want to tell everybody else that." And that, right away, squashes the interest or proclivity of that school district to do something different.

Now in the case where you have a really reform-minded superintendent or innovator, they're gonna push back. They're gonna say "No, no, no, that's not true. Get me on the phone with so-and-so." Right? And then it becomes the enterprise of negotiating and horse trading, but most of the time it's not that innovative superintendent that's doing it. It's the person in charge of professional development and they don't want to violate what they believe is a verified law.

Okay, so let's say Washington removes some regulations because they're in a position to be able to do that, right, especially with this administration Betsy DeVos who is really saying, "I want to sit down, step back, and allow districts to do what they want to do." And when this begins to happen, how can districts and policymakers empower parents to be able to make the education decisions that are best for their children?

Before I say something about the parents and how the school districts can empower parents, I also want to point out that under the Obama administration, some of the same demands and suggestions for flexibility were actually coming out of the Obama administration. Richard Culatta, for example, was the head of technology services. And he would say to folks, "Look, you are allowed to push the envelope on this. You can combine your technology funds with your reading funds with your professional development funds." He created a roadmap for districts, and many of them followed it and used it, and others, we don't know, did they ignore it, did they not use it, did they not understand it?

It's like any information. Sometimes you have to continue to beat it in people's heads that they can do certain things, even when they don't believe that they can. And so I think that the push and the call for flexibility is very widespread, it's very tri-partisan, I say, maybe not quite as radical in the previous administration as this one and really strings, for example, the interest by the Secretary DeVos in loosening up some of the restrictions on special education is causing the special education industry, if you will, to push back in fear that those monies aren't going to be spent well. The reality is we've not beaten the challenge of special education, and it's critical that we allow school districts and leaders to figure out new ways to address it. That's just another example.

Before we wrap up I want to talk to you about taxes. You wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times in response to Congress's proposed tax plan offering up to $30,000 in tax breaks for families who send their students to private schools. In the letter, you suggest offering breaks for donations to non-profit organizations that help build job skills that you say would be really useful. What other ways can a tax code be used to improve access to quality education for all families, and how could your suggestion impact edtech?

Right now, there's a 529 that's going to be offered to parents to expand 529s to K12 and that will help parents be able to allocate different dollars for their kids' education, particularly those who can afford to put that money away, and that's fine, it's an element of tax reform. It helps create some more opportunities for parents. But to us, it doesn't address the fundamental changes that are needed in the education landscape. What we had advocated for is having a much more broad concept of a tax credit— credit that could do exactly what Congress is trying to do, which is put more money back into the pockets of individuals and companies, but by putting some money back in their pockets, by giving them an incentive to contribute to organizations that provide scholarships for everything from education to training to workforce development.

Imagine having a scholarship-granting organization that is helping direct people to institutions that are truly embracing and supporting their needs. That would help develop not only a marketplace for really good ideas and new institutions, but it would reinforce this notion that people should be looking for the best offerings for their kids which allows them to truly fit their school to their students as opposed to their students to their school.

We were hoping that would be in the tax bill. It didn't make it, but we still think that tax reform could, in fact, help us spur the creation of new opportunities for learners at all levels.

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