Leveling the Playing Field for K-12 Business Can Unlock Innovation

You don’t have to go to business school to know that competition is the cornerstone of the global economy. Competition increases quality, lowers prices, and drives growth. Unfortunately, these effects aren’t always felt when it comes to the business of K-12 education.

That’s because there is a serious lack of competition in the U.S. K-12 market–surprising considering that our approximate 15,000 school districts spend well over $600 billion each year. Besides healthcare, education is the country’s largest market, with spending on mobile devices in schools alone accounting for over $4 billion a year. Global education technology spending is expected to reach $19 billion annually by 2019.

Large companies tend to consistently win K-12 contracts, attributable in part to brand recognition, deep salesforce penetration, and cumbersome procurement practices. The time and money spent to market and win business in the K-12 space can be totally prohibitive for companies regardless of size. Small companies have an almost insurmountable task of breaking through, and big companies must maintain enormous sales forces and cultivate strong relationships to stay in the black. This focus on sales and marketing does nothing to promote what’s most important–innovation and investment in the best possible outcomes for students and taxpayers.

There are many ways to encourage competition in the K-12 market, both from a policy standpoint and through the private sector.

One of the most lauded policy approaches has been “Race to the Top,” the competitive federal grants program. Now in its seventh year, “Race to the Top” recognizes the need for immediate improvement in K-12 to ensure every student graduates ready for college and career, regardless of disability, race, zip code or family income. It does so by encouraging and rewarding states that are creating positive conditions for education innovation. “Race to the Top” brought about national attention and priority to new terms in education like “instruction management systems” and “response to intervention.” Schools started planning for investment in smart data technology.

During my time as SVP of Client Services at SchoolNet, now owned by Pearson Education, “Race to the Top” was a huge boost. We knew we had a great product bringing essential data and visibility about students to the administrators and teachers that supported them, but we weren’t an overnight success. Sales were slow as we struggled to get discovered by districts. “Race to the Top” funding gave us the life line we needed as it encouraged schools to seek out innovative solutions to manage assessment, reporting and data driven decisions –products and services we, and a number of competitors, were built to provide.

E-Rate has been another federal catalyst. Formally known as The Schools and Libraries Program of the Universal Service Fund, it is administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) under the direction of the FCC. In its first five years, the initiative brought internet access to 95% of public schools. Now, its operating budget is over $3 billion and is on track to provide wi-fi to over ten million students a year. Because of that connectivity, companies have license to innovate amazing new education technology applications and systems. With E-rate, schools now have the technical infrastructure to support those systems.

But how do educators sort through the best in K-12 when they receive up to 1,000 sales emails a week? How can they introduce the right and best products with archaic procurement processes that take months or years? How can the private sector take action to drive innovation and increase student outcomes while lowering sales and marketing costs?

As CEO of Noodle Markets, K-12’s first procurement platform and national marketplace, I don’t see these as separate questions but rather parts of a holistic problem within K-12 that should be addressed with urgency. On Noodle Markets, educators discover and compare comprehensive K-12 products and services ranging from curriculum to construction, literacy tools to lawnmowers.  

The Noodle Markets model provides educators a free procurement toolkit and database of products and services to accomplish two big objectives: surfacing and comparing the best in K-12 and streamlining purchasing. Vendors register and add their products and services for free. They pay a nominal fee to respond to RFIs, RFPs, and other solicitations–as low as $25.

Our marketplace already features more than 25,000 K-12 products and services, and we are working with pioneering districts on RF/I/P/Qs. Doing our part to increase competition in the K-12 market will save educators and vendors time and money on internal procedures and marketing, ultimately fostering innovation across K-12 products and services. We invite you to join us at noodlemarkets.com.