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Does learning languish because of Florida’s long-term publisher contracts?

Five-year contracts make it harder for innovation education vendors to compete.

The modern publishing world moves so fast that this week’s bestseller can fill bargain bins a few months later. So why do Florida textbook contracts go out and get signed for five years?

Smaller publishers increasingly wonder how to compete with the biggest names in the business so long as long-term bids remain the norm in the Sunshine State.

“It absolutely hinders innovation,” said Michael B. Horn, chief strategic officer for Entangled Solutions.

Yet for decades, the textbook game nationwide produced 5-, 6- or even 9-year contracts on a regular basis. That’s started to change as states like Texas re-evaluate long-term arrangements with major vendors.

But in Florida, school districts work with the Florida Department Of Education to set up five-year relationships on textbooks and many other educational supplements.

“It’s time for Florida’s education policy to adapt to modern times,” said Rita Ferrandino, founding partner for Arc Capital Development.

That could be slow-moving on the biggest contracts for textbooks, but already some of Florida’s individual school districts have started to employ different strategies on supplementary materials like software.

Sylvia Diaz, assistant superintendent for schools or Miami-Dade County Public Schools, said her district has been on a mission to employ more cutting-edge technology in the classroom.

That means dispatching hardware like the 150,000 mobile devices in the hands of district students.

It also means using tools like Curriculum Associates’ i-Ready software to empower teachers and prepare kids for rigorous academic standards.

“A lot of strategies across different programs in the school district have contributed to the district’s success,” she said.

She said the district still adopts textbooks through the standard state system, which provides for five-year pricing and bundling of materials.

These days, many textbook publishers will provide accompanying software with a web component that allows for upgrades and improvements. But the district remains bound to five-year deals when working through the state.

But in addition to those deals, Miami-Dade officials also enter other contracts funded with local revenues to do business with publishers of additional materials.

“We don’t have to go into five-year contracts with supplements like i-Ready,” explained Lisette Alves, Assistant Superintendent of Academics for the Miami-Dade district.

Rather, those deals are locally funded and negotiated as pilot programs. The longest such contracts typically run for three years, and allow for to district to opt out each year if officials find a more effective education delivery system.

And that’s actually what many smaller publishers prefer. While everyone enjoys having a contract promising to sustain and enrich a company for years, the truth of long-term contracts is they favor mega-corporations. And those companies aren’t always the ones on the bleeding edge of innovation.

Long-term publishing deals date back decades to when the only significant materials being purchased by schools from publishers were textbooks. And for subject matters like mathematics, foreign language and history, there seemed little change in the curricula over five-year periods. Why swap out books more frequently than necessary?

That’s not so true in a world of software upgrades. New classroom management techniques quickly work themselves into education supplements. And the capacity of programs changes rapidly. Consider the look of mobile phone games released in 2014 and what differs from anything released this year.

“In the age of digital technology tools, a five-year commitment no longer meets the needs of the students,” said Ferrandino. “Can you imagine your kids taking what they were using five years ago and then using it now?”

Meanwhile, textbooks from some major providers haven’t kept up with national standards and shifts in curricula. EdReports.org notes, for example, that Pearson Literature materials for high school grade levels only partially meet the expectations of tests on the subjects. Yet, they continue to be adopted by state schools.

And those digital supplements? Edweek reports Pearson was selling off much of those materials as it focused on its most profitable contracts, leaving many educators worried about whether those tools will soon disappear.

So why do districts continue to buy from the publisher? It’s easier in many cases to stick with legacy offerings that regulators and school district officials already know.

Ferrandino worked for 20 years for Pearson, one of the biggest names in textbook publishing. But for the past 15 years, she has worked through her capital group instead with startup and small business providers of educational materials.

She sees long-term deals with publishers only benefitting the established industry players.

“It’s the big dogs that want to lock it all in, and that’s not typically where we have seen innovation,” she said.

Florida can already be a hard state to do business because so many of the districts here are so massive, and to do work at the statewide level means needing the capacity to serve the third most populous state in the union.

But five-year contracts limit opportunities even more, Ferrandino said.

Horn said the infrequency in opportunities to even pursue new contracts has an impact on the how hard companies work to stay ahead of the curve.

“It hinders the velocity to solicit new providers and try things out,” he said.

And districts may be more reticent to work with startups that may not be around five years from now. Any new business has an inherently risky future, after all.

“It protects the incumbent,” Horn said. “Anytime you are prescribing precisely how a local school district will operate with a vendor, you are restricting innovation.”

And not every district enjoys the freedom Miami-Dade has to go it alone. Florida’s most populous county has a $26 million budget for textbook contracts negotiated through the Department of Education, and can spend millions more on side contracts. But smaller districts lack such ability.

It begs the question, do Florida’s current procurement standards allow for creativity and innovation at all?

“It doesn’t result in the best education tools being sold by companies,” Ferrandino said.

Horn said Florida districts need more ability to set up contracts that don’t bring long-term commitments.

“If new providers come to the market, districts need flexibility,” he said. “That’s what you need in any organization if you are going to succeed.”

Written By

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at jacobogles@hotmail.com.

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