Non-Profit Aims For Market Transparency In K-12 Edtech Purchases

Teachers were not only the earliest adopters of educational technology. They were also savvy consumers of it, sharing tips on social media about the best free apps they’d found.

Now edtech is a big business, and school districts are spending billions on purchases of tablets, laptops, and educational software. But the districts haven’t been so adept at sharing their shopping tips with each other, and they’re paying the price for it, according to a nonprofit organization that’s trying to help them get better deals.

Over the past year, the New York-based Technology for Education Consortium (TEC) has been urging school districts across the country to send in data about the prices they’ve paid for two of the top computers used in K-12 classrooms—Apple’s iPad tablets and the Chromebook laptops that run on Google’s Chrome OS operating system. The organization turned up some surprising patterns.

Although bulk buyers like huge school districts usually expect to negotiate significant discounts on their tech purchases, Apple sales representatives have often given better deals on iPads to districts with a few thousand students than they offered to districts with as many as 30,000 students, says Hal Friedlander, TEC’s co-founder and chief executive. And certain districts didn’t beat the price they would have paid in an Apple store, he says.

“Some districts paid more than retail,” Friedlander says.

Friedlander (pictured above) says he founded TEC last year to help solve a nagging problem he faced when he was the chief information officer at the New York City Department of Education—with more than a million students, that’s the nation’s largest school district. The problem: Edtech was anything but a transparent market. Friedlander and his counterparts in large cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami didn’t know the prevailing price ranges for hardware and instructional products, and they didn’t know how effective teachers and school administrators found them to be.

“We had all these resources at these large districts: money, expertise, and staff,” Friedlander says. “We still had a hard time making good choices.”

Friedlander launched his solution in February of 2016, when his new nonprofit consortium began roping in school districts to join the group and share their experiences—not only on pricing, but also on the quality of edtech products used in their classrooms. The group attracted $750,000 in seed funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The nonprofit issued its earliest consumer report for school edtech buyers in March, focusing on iPad pricing; an update of the report also covers Chromebooks. The group’s new buying information resource, dubbed the TEC Data Platform, is available to member districts. At this point, joining TEC is free for school districts.

The data platform was created through a partnership with the Raleigh, NC company Lea(R)n, which offers districts an edtech management system called LearnPlatform. That company set up an online framework where districts working with Friedlander’s consortium can enter price data and comments about edtech products. The online market data library makes it easier for busy school officials to make entries, which are automatically added to the market reports, Friedlander says. By the end of February, TEC is planning to post pricing data on curriculum and assessment software products.

The nonprofit consortium’s goals dovetail with Lea(R)n’s business plan. The startup includes procurement support among the services it offers to school districts. Karl Rectanus, Lea(R)n’s co-founder and CEO, says empowering school edtech buyers with data will “make the demand side more demanding.”

The districts’ names and other identifying features are removed in TEC’s consumer reports, because public school administrators are wary of being blamed if they unintentionally overpaid for services bought on the taxpayer’s dime, Friedlander says. In the reports, the de-identified public school districts are allocated into broad groups based on the size range of their student populations. Prices are reported by group.

Sixty districts reported the prices they paid for iPads in TEC’s most recent report. The prices ranged from $376 to $616 per device, though most districts were part of a big cluster that paid between $472 and $496. Of those that didn’t fall into that cluster, almost all paid more than that middle range, including districts serving between 25,000 and 100,000 students.

A few giant districts with more than 100,000 students paid less than the middle range. TEC looked at prices for iPad models that were comparable by generation, storage capacity, and other factors, Friedlander says. (The prices for current iPad models listed on the Apple store range from $269 to $1,129. That top price is for a 12-inch iPad Pro with a 256GB capacity and both Wi-Fi and cellular access.)

In his talks with school district officials, Friedlander says his colleagues have expressed frustration with Apple’s sales system for schools. They told him that Apple doesn’t base its prices on a standard rate scheme for districts. One school district superintendent was so upset by the price he was quoted that he bought Best Buy gift cards for his students so they could buy iPads themselves, Friedlander recounted. That maneuver was an end-run around Apple retail contract restrictions that would have barred Best Buy from filling a school district order, Friedlander says.

Apple requires districts to buy directly from the company, rather than going to retailers who also sell iPads, Friedlander says. (At the online Apple Store for Education, districts apparently must register and set up an account with Apple before they can see school price information.)

In certain regions, some sales representatives for Apple seem to be given a significant amount of latitude in the prices they can set, Friedlander says.

Apple hasn’t responded so far to Xconomy’s request for comment on the TEC survey findings and Friedlander’s accounts.

The TEC report also found a wide range of prices paid for comparable Chromebooks by about 40 districts that disclosed their data. Unlike iPads, Chromebooks … Next Page »

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Bernadette Tansey is Xconomy's San Francisco Editor. You can reach her at btansey@xconomy.com. Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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