When the Rain Turns Green

By Len Scrogan
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It’s raining, and the droplets look green. With over one million educational employees having been laid off due to the pandemic, life hasn’t been easy for educators in the States. But as the springtime blossoms, it is starting to pour… money, that is. In the recently authorized $1.9 trillion federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) at least $122.8 billion is slated for use by K-12 schools and more than $40 billion is dedicated to a “higher ed emergency relief fund”.

In the mix, we also see over $2.75 billion emergency funding scheduled for non-public schools and more than $7.1 billion slated for home broadband connectivity and devices for K12 schools.

Bags Of Money Showing American Finances And EconomyAccording to U.S. government websites, the money can be “used for technology, safety improvements, faculty and staff trainings and payroll; emergency financial aid grants”. There is also a lot of chatter about using these funds for student mental health programs and funding summer school, after-school activities, and learning loss (recovery) programs. I italicized the word technology above, because this rescue funding promises to dwarf the educational technology purchases of any previous decade, a realization which should garner the interest of our Display Daily readers.

Of course, as is typical with any government outlay, accessing these funds guarantees to be a complex and time-eating endeavor. This challenge will be exponentially multiplied by the sheer size of this rescue package, which is staggering, and the extremely short time windows for spending this money. But the money won’t flow freely downstream; and it won’t be available equally to all comers. It appears that 95% of these funds will be dispatched to school districts based on equity. For example, Title 1 and low-income districts and schools will receive more dollars.

There are also some serious structural challenges involved with spending this money:

This is one-time money. Given that most of the resources that schools might buy have 3-5 year lifespans, this presents a serious problem. Clearly, schools don’t have a great track record with one-time monies. They tend to buy devices or software without regard to the future, ignoring such critical factors as total cost of ownership and end-of-lifecycle replacement. I expect most districts to limit these funds to activities that make sense for one-time funds; I also expect about 30% of schools to make bonehead decisions with this money, putting off for tomorrow any difficult decisions about TCO and replacement.

This funding requires a plan. According to the rules as they stand, within 30 days of receiving their ARP monies, districts must develop a detailed plan for their expenditures. So, what’s so hard about doing a little technology planning, you ask? Plenty, I respond. Over the last decade, technology planning in schools has largely fallen out of vogue, as opposed to just “getting the stuff” or running on automatic. I know this because I teach technology planning at the graduate level. Educators repeatedly tell me that they face great resistance to planning in their schools. I also have presented frequently on this topic at national ed-tech conferences. The pattern there is also clear: for the last ten years, all my presentations on “tech planning” have been turned down by dozens of conferences or, when offered, are ill-attended by educators, even though I know how to make these presentations quite scintillating. (Educators prefer the sessions on tools, free stuff and the “bright new shiny object”.) My experience is that schools are not ready for the level and scope of planning that this monumental outlay will require. This suggests that the whole process will likely ensue as a hurried, chaotic mess. I recognize that some well-governed districts will plan and execute well, but most will not. Suffice it to say that a rushed or crowdsourced procurement list is not the same as effective technology planning. That makes me wonder: “Is ‘planning’ something that vendors could help schools get better at?”

There is a rush. At least so far, funds will need to be expended by the end of September, 2023. This hotfoot spending, almost impossible to accomplish in this given time frame given our notoriously slow education sector, promises to lead to some major inefficiencies, waste and huge-ass mistakes. Oh my!

I suspect that a corresponding rush on vendor/integrator staff and your support bandwidth– in short, your ability to manage all of this demand– will also be forthcoming. Better get to hiring and streamlining your educational sales divisions right away (with faster or simpler working methods). Better get on top of employee vacation schedules and the expected summer slowdown, because with these monies, they have their own schedule, a mind of their own, and all bets are off. –Len Scrogan