What Gives the Edtech Industry Hope — and Pause — Under a Biden...

Policy and Government

What Gives the Edtech Industry Hope — and Pause — Under a Biden Administration

By Tony Wan     Nov 17, 2020

What Gives the Edtech Industry Hope — and Pause — Under a Biden Administration

When President-elect Joe Biden gave a shoutout to the education profession early on in his acceptance speech, the teaching community cheered and roared.

They were not the only ones. Business executives and funders of educational technologies also welcomed the signal that education will be a major focus for the incoming administration.

“It will be incredibly beneficial to have a life-long educator in Dr. Jill Biden as First Lady, and I’m hopeful that education will be a top priority for the new administration,” says Brian Grey, CEO of Remind, a provider of school communication tools.

Grey is among the 87 education executives who signed an “EdTech for Biden” blog post published in October. John Katzman, a longtime education entrepreneur who founded The Princeton Review, 2U and currently heads Noodle Partners and authored the post, says the primary goal was to get them to collectively donate $1 million through the campaign website. (They fell a little shy of that mark, he adds.)

Fundraising aside, Katzman says he and his fellow signatories supported Biden not simply as a matter of party loyalty, or even for business reasons. “Most of the people who signed this would probably make more money” under Trump, he notes.

“If I think about the character, morals and values that we represent as a country, and I think about the administration we’ve had and what Joe Biden promises, it’s like night and day,” says Adam Newman, a managing partner at Tyton Partners, a consulting and investment banking firm, who signed the post. (“Actually, that’s an insult to both night and day,” he quips.)

Industry leaders hope a leadership change can also steer education debates past the tensions that they say unnecessarily pit public and private education stakeholders as diametrically opposed enemies. Charter schools, for-profit colleges and private education service providers, for instance, continue to elicit polarizing reactions between supporters who believe they spur new ideas and innovation, and critics who charge these efforts as profiteers.

Katzman acknowledged the “uneasy relationship” that exists between education businesses and public policy makers. The conventional notion is that Democrats tend to crack down harshly on the private sector, while Republicans “let them go wild and revert back to terrible practices,” he says. “But that can’t be the only way that the private sector deals with education.”

By rallying his peers around a new administration, Katzman says he hopes to pose this challenge: “Can we coalesce to create a new kind of relationship with government and policymakers?”

The answer depends not just on the policies espoused by the Biden-Harris campaign, but also the officials who will be appointed to execute on those plans.

Many Goals, Shared Interests

The incoming administration’s education priorities, spread across several pages on Biden-Harris campaign website, covers plenty of ground, promising more investments in early childhood education, vocational programs, minority-serving institutions and mental health services, and increasing teacher pay and reducing student debt, among many other goals.

With dozens of objectives listed, industry financiers did not have difficulty identifying those aligned with their interests and investments.

Diana Anthony, a former preschool teacher who currently runs Figure Eight Investments, an education venture capital firm, says she is “most excited about the prospect for universal Pre-K under the new administration,” adding: “Right now there is a huge inequity in terms of preschool quality and access. Consistent preschool will provide much needed childcare for working parents.”

Early-childhood education has already won support beyond the federal level, as several state and local ballot measures to fund pre-K programs passed in the recent election. Eileen Rudden, a co-founder of LearnLaunch, a Boston-based education technology nonprofit, says continued bipartisan backing can “drive public support for expansion [of] both public and private providers, and continue to boost the edtech providers focused on this space.

For older learners, Biden’s focus on bringing back “shop classes,” apprenticeships and vocational training received warm reception.

“If we cannot pass a law like the one in the U.K. that requires all large employers to allocate [a percentage] of payroll to apprenticeship programs, perhaps at least we can have the Department of Education lead schools, colleges, employers, and governors in collaborating to increase the range and number of apprenticeships available,” says Matt Greenfield, managing director at Rethink Education, an edtech investment firm.

Biden’s focus on closing the “digital divide,” starting with a proposal to invest $20 billion to improve rural broadband infrastructure, also won applause at a time when many students lack the basic technologies needed to access the online tools and software for remote learning,

“Broadband access at home as well as in school should be a basic human right, as should food, shelter and medical care,” Greenfield adds. “What kind of future could we be preparing a student for that doesn't involve using the internet?

Beyond providing technology, there is hope that Biden’s focus on supporting teachers extends to providing training to ensure that they know how to implement the latest technology and instructional practices effectively.

“We’ve seen the greatest uptick in usage of edtech tools that we’ve ever seen,” says Amber Oliver, managing director of the Robin Hood Learning + Technology Fund. “We’ve also heard from teachers and parents that they didn’t know how to use these tools well. The Biden administration has talked about the challenges of teacher preparation in this country, and there’s an opportunity for us to rethink how we support teachers.” Working with teacher-training programs at colleges to update accreditation standards and incorporate technology skills, she notes, would be a strong start.

Beyond the purview of the federal education department, a change in tenor around immigration would also be welcome. The Trump administration’s moves to limit visas for students and working professionals has drawn the ire of college and business leaders alike. Foreign student enrollment at U.S. colleges has been on the decline.

“Businesses and academic institutions thrive when they can attract and retain diverse voices,” says Anthony. “Even before the pandemic, the number of foreign students—and the talent and tuition dollars they brought—was dwindling. I’m hoping a more immigration friendly administration will reposition the US as the top destination for start-up and academic talent.”

Chief Concerns

How or whether the new administration will pursue all of these goals depends, in large part, on who leads the education department. Biden’s pick for Secretary of Education—who he has pledged will have public-school teaching experience—will be a bellwether for the orientation of priorities and policies.

So far, some of the names that have surfaced give the edtech industry some pause.

Lily Eskelsen García, former head of the National Educational Association, is considered a top contender. Randi Weingarten, who leads the other teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, is another. Both groups, which campaigned extensively for Biden, have been outspoken critics of the role of private companies, for-profit interests and charter schools.

“The Biden team’s lack of enthusiasm for charter schools could dampen a proven source of K-12 school innovation,” opines Rudden of LearnLaunch. “Many edtech companies have been able to get started by appealing to this innovative segment of the market, and later expand to district schools. It has also been a segment fertile with new innovative school models … I hope that the communities of color which strongly supported Biden in the election will make it clear that these schools, when they deliver good results, should be supported.”

“I hope Biden will demonstrate a level of maturity and be thoughtful about who he brings in and the messaging it sends,” says Newman of Tyton Partners. “I think we need more collaboration, not less, across the different players in this ecosystem.”

“I don’t know how you can talk about success in K-12 or postsecondary education without an earnest assessment of public-private partnerships,” he adds. “That doesn’t mean they’re all good, or that they’ll all work. But I don’t think there’s any evidence that the public system as it is, by itself, will solve all the problems at the pace and velocity it needs to.”

Next Targets

Despite the industry’s optimism for the changes a new administration could bring, it is not expecting completely smooth sailing.

Under Obama, the U.S. Department of Education cracked down on for-profit institutions that it charged were taking federal aid and loans but did not adequately prepare students for jobs. Some of these colleges, including Corinthian, were accused of misleading and defrauding students and were eventually shuttered.

Under Biden, “the ones we may see targeted this time are OPM providers,” opines Newman, referring to companies that help colleges and universities offer and operate online programs. Even earlier this year, five companies found themselves the subject of an inquiry from the offices of Democratic senators about their business practices and financial arrangements.

Among the names on the education agency review team assisting with the presidential transition is a representative from The Century Foundation, a think tank that has been consistently critical of for-profit education companies like OPMs.

Katzman, whose company provides OPM services for dozens of colleges, says he welcomes the scrutiny. “There are people who are using technology to reduce the cost of higher ed, and there are those who keep it expensive. We’re happy to be as transparent as possible to show that technology can be part of the solution,” he says.

As colleges turn increasingly to providers like Noodle and Coursera to augment their offerings, there is hope that the new administration will continue to be receptive to public-private partnerships. Toward the end of the Obama years, the federal education department experimented with providing federal aid to support colleges that offered short-term “bootcamp” programs in partnership with third-party companies. While that effort fizzled, industry leaders hope the spirit of innovation and iteration will remain.

“We hope that the Department will help foster a higher level of experimentation with new models of education and credentialing, [and] work with private sector actors to help smooth the flow of transfer credits from one institution to the next,” says Greenfield.

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