Mission (Almost) Accomplished: Nonprofit EducationSuperHighway Prepares...


Mission (Almost) Accomplished: Nonprofit EducationSuperHighway Prepares to Sunset

By Emily Tate Sullivan     Apr 4, 2019

Mission (Almost) Accomplished: Nonprofit EducationSuperHighway Prepares to Sunset

It’s the beginning of the end of the road for EducationSuperHighway.

After seven years of coordinated efforts to improve internet access in schools, thereby laying the foundation for digital learning to take root and expand in U.S. classrooms, the nonprofit is preparing to shut down.

But it’s a move both the industry and founder and CEO Evan Marwell are celebrating. The closure does not come on the heels of financial woes, a leadership scandal or legal dispute. Instead, EducationSuperHighway is sunsetting because, well, that’s what Marwell always intended it to do—once the organization reached its expressed goal of connecting 99 percent of K-12 students to high-speed broadband.

“When I started the organization, I really did view this as a finite goal,” Marwell tells EdSurge. “We’re almost to the end.”

By next fall, the mission will be accomplished, Marwell says, at which time he will step away from his role, close down EducationSuperHighway and pass on its assets to a yet-to-be-determined national partner organization.

The education community could have seen this coming. In 2017, EducationSuperHighway’s annual “State of the States” report declared 94 percent of U.S. schools had gained high-speed internet access, per the Federal Communications Commission’s minimum connectivity standard of 100 kilobits per second (kbps) per student. In 2018, that number ticked up to 98 percent.

K-12 internet access educationsuperhighway
Source: EducationSuperHighway

But back in February 2012, when Marwell started the nonprofit, hitting those marks was almost unthinkable, says Jennifer Bergland, director of governmental relations at the Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA), a nonprofit. District technology leaders, she adds, couldn’t fathom that internet service providers would come out and deliver fiber to their schools, much less at affordable rates.

At that time, school internet was slow, expensive and only available in about 30 percent of U.S. schools. Compare that to today, when nearly 45 million students in the U.S. can access digital learning in their classrooms (with 2 million to go). The median cost of internet access has gone down dramatically as well, from $22 per Mbps in 2013 to $3.26 in 2018.

K-12 broadband prices
Source: EducationSuperHighway

In Bergland’s state of Texas, 40 school districts remain to be connected, out of more than 1,000 total. The issue is “not completely solved in the state of Texas,” she says, “but we are so much further down the road.”

She adds: EducationSuperHighway’s “work has just been invaluable. It has truly made a remarkable difference.”

Creating a Movement

Marwell himself didn’t know much about the problem until, after a conversation with his daughter about the prohibitively slow internet at her private K-8 school, he decided to start a nonprofit to address it.

For Marwell, a serial entrepreneur, EducationSuperHighway presented a new and refreshing challenge. He’d spent his career building and selling companies in various industries, including finance, telecommunications, software and consumer retail. He wanted something different, something meaningful. So seven years ago, knowing little about school broadband, he dove in.

Certain parts of his prior experience were applicable in the nonprofit world, he says: become an expert in one thing, set finite goals, raise money against specific milestones (rather than annual budgets).

Other parts of the sector caught him off guard.

“I didn’t understand the power of a mission,” he admits. “Personally, I didn’t understand how motivating it would be, but I also didn’t understand how many people want to be a part of something that’s making a difference in the world.”

Drawing on what he knew best, Marwell ran his nonprofit with the urgency, pacing and risk-taking that is more typical of for-profit companies.

He paid up for talent, too, much like a for-profit.

One of EducationSuperHighway’s early investors balked after he saw the staff salaries. “He said, ‘In nonprofit, you hire at a discount,’” Marwell recalls. “I said, ‘Then you get B-players.’ So much of what we’ve accomplished is because we’ve hired A-players.”

He made only one exception on salaries. According to the Form 990s EducationSuperHighway has filed each year, Marwell paid himself $0 annually. “It is true that I have not taken a penny of salary, nor will I,” he confirms. In fact, quite the reverse: Marwell wound up funding the first year of EducationSuperHighway out of his own pocket.

After that, he raised about $60 million through grants and various funders.

Despite the broadband upgrades schools have seen since 2012, Marwell hesitates to claim all the credit. “We think of our work in terms of creating this movement and being a catalyst,” he says. “Our value add is largely done.”

The Work Continues

What remains, he says, is best handled by others. At the federal level, that means the FCC— which oversees the $3.9 billion E-rate program that provides broadband discounts to schools and libraries—along with the U.S. Department of Education and the White House. Marwell feels confident that all three will support ongoing efforts to improve and upgrade internet access and speeds in schools.

At the state level, that task belongs to governors and state education agencies. Locally, it’s individual school districts. Otherwise, it’s a miscellaneous crew of national associations, including the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) and the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband (SHLB) coalition.

Those agencies and organizations will all continue to play their part come August 2020, when EducationSuperHighway fades out, Marwell hopes. But at least one organization will pick up the mantle and manage a new online database—code-named “JAM”—that EducationSuperHighway is building to track K-12 E-rate usage and internet access through 2025.

The database will, among other things, help state and local education leaders identify districts’ upgrade needs; ensure internet service at fair prices; and track progress toward the FCC’s new bandwidth goal of 1 Mbps per student, which will be enough to enable digital learning in “every classroom, every day,” Marwell says.

“The big thing we think about is making sure this movement remains sustainable,” he says, “that momentum continues to drive this every day.”

To set that process in motion, he posted a Request for Information (RFI) about JAM in mid-February. Interested organizations had to submit their proposals outlining budgets and strategic plans by April 1. A finalist (or two) will be selected by June 1.

Days before the proposals were due, Marwell wouldn’t divulge much about the contenders, but he told EdSurge that so far “about a dozen organizations have engaged in the process.”

“You can probably imagine who many of them are,” he says. “It is a combination of what I’ll describe as advocacy organizations that have long been part of this organization, some operating foundations that have been on the fringes of this conversation but have been engaged in it, and stakeholders who have technical and data expertise.”

Specifically, he’s looking for a partner that can continue outreach, advocacy and marketing efforts to states and districts as well as run the more technical side of things, such as software development and data cleaning. If he can’t find a single partner to handle both tasks, he says he’s prepared to select multiple.

But, he clarifies, no organization that steps in will be continuing the amount of work his 60-person staff handles now. The JAM product, he says, will be a much simpler, cleaner version than its predecessor, Compare & Connect K-12, a free online tool that helps schools maximize bandwidth within their budgets by making broadband and pricing data more transparent to districts, states and internet service providers. By the time Marwell hands off JAM next year, he expects to have secured funds “in the single-digit millions” to support the initiative financially.

As for Marwell? As a serial entrepreneur, he’s planning to start something new. What that is, exactly, he hasn’t figured out. But he has some ideas. Among them are another foray into education, a project to improve the effectiveness of government and an organization that addresses hunger and food insecurity.

There is one thing he knows for sure, though.

“I want to stay in the impact business,” Marwell says. “Impact has driven us here, and it’s what made this … by far, the most rewarding professional experience of my career.”

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