Our guiding principles for partnerships included clear objectives, mutual understanding, and flexible invitations.
Governors were critical to upgrading 99% of schools’ broadband. They made it a priority, provided resources, and connected us to schools.
The classroom connectivity gap was closed because many organizations knew it was a priority.
E-rate consultants help school districts apply for federal funding so they can upgrade their Internet connections. Learn how we engaged these experts to drive school upgrades.
Internet service provider partnerships were key to upgrading school broadband connections. Learn about how we forged relationships and drove impact with providers.
Thank you to the state broadband leaders who went above and beyond to help close the classroom connectivity gap, and continue to support schools.
Strong partnerships can help you advance your mission and create policy change. These partners were instrumental to closing the connectivity gap.
We could not have completed our mission without the human capital partners who helped us find, recruit, and train our staff.
EducationSuperHighway created and fostered partnerships with a wide variety of policymakers, broadband companies, and peer nonprofits who shared our goal of improving classroom connectivity. These partnerships were critical to achieving our mission and over the years we found a few key elements that made our partnerships successful.
Our best partnerships were ones where everyone understood why they were collaborating. When you understand what matters to your partner, you can show them how you are going to bring value to them through the relationship. At the same time, being open about what you want out of the partnership will build trust and help create an environment where everyone is fully engaged in making your joint work a success.
The foundation of a good partnership is ensuring that everyone is crystal clear on the specific objectives of the collaboration and what each partner must deliver in order to achieve these goals. In some of our early partnerships, we either assumed everyone understood the goals and responsibilities or were far too general in our discussions of these topics. This often led to misunderstandings and the need for resets along the way. Once we started being extremely explicit about the outcomes we were trying to achieve together and each partner’s specific responsibilities, our partnerships functioned more effectively and achieved more in shorter amounts of time.
The best partnerships in a mission-driven setting are those where all parties understand and are excited by the value they are receiving from the collaboration. When this is the case, everyone is taking the actions required for success because they are motivated by the outcomes you are trying to achieve. For example, in our partnerships with Internet service providers, we wanted them to bid on RFPs to upgrade schools while they wanted to grow their businesses. We didn’t need a formal agreement that they would bid because we knew it was in their best interest to do so! While formal agreements are necessary if money is involved, we found that they usually just slowed things down and limited the creativity that partners brought to the work.
Sometimes our work seemed so narrow in scope, other organizations didn’t see clear opportunities to join us. Other times, potential partners didn’t know how to categorize us – were we competitors or allies? By inviting and welcoming partners to join us at their convenience, we were able to work with far more stakeholders (such as Internet service providers) to complete our mission. Some partners were “on the bus” the whole time, while some needed to get on and off. Keeping everyone informed of our process allowed them to join our mission when it felt right for them.
One of our early advisors told our CEO, “You will be amazed what you can accomplish if you let other people take the credit.” It became our mantra for how we pursued our mission and our partnerships. As a result, our partners almost always viewed our collaborations as a success and were excited to stay engaged until the mission was complete.
Watch our webinar: Scaling your work through government partnerships, given by Jack Lynch, Director of State Engagements and Jenny Miller, State Engagement Director
EducatonSuperHighway would not have been able to complete its mission on schedule without the partnership of 85 governors from all 50 states over the final five years of our work. These Democratic and Republican leaders made K-12 broadband upgrades a priority for their administrations, provided resources, and gave our team access to and credibility with virtually all of the school districts in the country that needed upgrades. The result was a bi-partisan movement that made digital learning possible in 99.3% of America’s classrooms.
With the modernization of the Federal Communication Commission’s E-rate program in 2014, we knew the biggest roadblock to completing our mission was going to be convincing school districts to take the actions necessary to upgrade their broadband infrastructure. Based on our experience with the National School Speed Test, we knew that governors could help us overcome this problem in two ways: by setting statewide K-12 broadband goals, and by leveraging their state education departments’ relationships to encourage districts to partner with us. In effect, we needed governors to use their bully pulpit to make the case for districts to upgrade and then allow us to use their communication channels and credibility to distribute our upgrade programs to districts.
Education is a top-three priority for every governor. Knowing this, we pitched our mission to governors as an opportunity to make tangible progress on improving education by bringing their schools into the 21st-century and improving educational equity. However, in order to convince governors to really act, they also had to believe that we would deliver on our promise to upgrade their schools. We did this by providing detailed, data-driven assessments of their schools’ specific upgrade needs and detailing state-specific action plans that leveraged our already proven upgrade programs. We then helped governors get to yes by showing them that this was a low-cost, low-risk opportunity. Costs were limited because we were providing the human capital to execute the plan and risk was limited because we were only asking states to do things that were easy for them to deliver. It took us a while to figure out this formula, but once we did, it didn’t take long for governors to start partnering with us.
We got lucky with our first two governor partnerships: the governors’ offices of Arkansas and Virginia approached us for help and we put almost all our resources into making those engagements a success. This decision paid off – we delivered great progress in our first year of working together, and they agreed to be references for us with other governors. It was now time to take our governor strategy to scale. Our sales strategy was to first convince governors to join the mission and then return with a proposal to partner with us to achieve it. In both cases, we leveraged trusted partners to get access to the governors and convince them to act.
Our partner in convincing governors to join the mission was 50 State, a government affairs consulting firm formed by the former Executive Directors of the Republican and Democratic Governors Associations. 50 State’s role was to make the initial pitch to governors’ offices that K-12 broadband upgrades could be a winning issue for the governor and that he or she wanted to be seen as a leader on the issue in our annual State of the States reports. Because they had a compelling pitch, references from both Republican- and Democrat-led states, and a trusted relationship with all 50 governors, they convinced 37 governors to sign on to our mission in our first year. These states then became our targets for scaling our implementation partnerships.
We then joined forces with the National Governors Association (NGA) to sell our first cohort of implementation partnerships. NGA suggested hosting a policy academy on K-12 broadband because states often participated in them to transition from setting goals to implementation. NGA recruited six states to participate in a two-day event. There, representatives from governors’ offices, departments of education, local school districts, and departments of IT or broadband met to learn more about K-12 connectivity in their state and strategize on next steps for closing the gap. During the policy academy, we focused on:
The policy academy was a successful start to six of our longest partnerships. In addition, as we produced results for these states, it gave us the credibility to “sell” even more governors’ offices and scale our work nationally.
With each partnership, we worked with the governor’s office to set connectivity goals and help us convince school districts to adopt our upgrade programs. Our cross-functional teams created project plans and used the state’s distribution channels to share our marketing materials and other resources with individual districts. Later, we helped governors’ offices make the case for matching funds so that school districts could leverage federal funding to build fiber to all of their schools. We kept governors and state leaders engaged through our annual State of the States reports, which included snapshots celebrating states’ successes – and brought them positive media coverage.
With over 300 school districts spread out over sparsely-populated rural areas, challenging terrain, and limited infrastructure and service provider competition, Governor Bullock wanted help giving all Montana students, regardless of where they lived, a 21st-century education.
In 2015, we established a working group with several partners: EducationSuperHighway, the Governor’s Office, the State Superintendent/Office of Public Instruction, the Department of Commerce, School Administrators of Montana, and the Montana Rural Education Agency. We met twice a month throughout each school year to collaborate on school district communications, Internet service provider outreach, strategic planning, policy updates, and to share our progress on projects. Our team members visited the state countless times to attend meetings with partners, jointly present at conferences, and meet with school districts and service providers.
In 2017, the working group helped push for and establish a $2M state matching fund for fiber construction. Based on data provided by the working group mapping the need and costs of connecting Montana’s schools to fiber, the legislature passed House Bill 390 99-1, making it possible for virtually every school district in Montana to afford these critical infrastructure upgrades. In addition, the working group convinced the state to invest an additional $225K through the Department of Commerce to cover the cost of E-rate consultants that districts needed to obtain federal funding for these projects. 149 school districts utilized all $225,000 over the two-year program.
The impact of this partnership: 100% of Montana’s K-12 schools now have enough Internet bandwidth to use digital learning in their classrooms, the cost of broadband declined 78% over five years, and 90% of Montana’s schools are connected to fiber. Most importantly, it means that all 147,000 of Montana’s K-12 students (up from 63,000) now have access to the 21st-century education that Governor Bullock envisioned when he decided to partner with EducationSuperHighway.
EducationSuperHighway dramatically accelerated the upgrading of America’s K-12 broadband infrastructure, but we were not the first to focus on this issue. State departments of education, educator associations, education advocacy organizations, and state broadband network leaders had all been working on this issue for many years before we got started. Over this time, they developed relationships and knowledge that would become critical to the success of our mission.
Here is how we partnered with these organizations to reach our collective goal of upgrading America’s K-12 schools.
State departments of education (DOEs) were the critical link to school districts. We partnered with them throughout the course of our mission to reach school districts and convince them to adopt our upgrade programs. Our first major engagement with state DOEs came by accident, but was the key to the success of our first effort to collect data on the state of broadband in America’s K-12 schools.
In 2012 we launched the National School Speed Test to find out how many schools had sufficient bandwidth to use technology in the classroom. We launched the program in partnership with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the U.S. Department of Education, and dozens of companies and non-profits that worked with schools. Despite our best marketing and communications efforts, only 1,200 people in less than one percent of the nation’s schools actually took the Speed Test in our first month. This data was key to our strategy of convincing policymakers to focus on the K-12 broadband problem and we knew if we didn’t figure out how to dramatically increase the number of tests our advocacy efforts would fail. In short, we needed help reaching more schools.
Serendipitously, we met Kurt Keifer, then the Director of Education Technology at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. It turned out that Kurt was looking for school connectivity data for a different reason: to know if Wisconsin schools had enough broadband to handle state testing. We told him about the Speed Test and he offered to distribute it to his school districts with the Department of Public Instruction’s stamp of approval. This was a game changer. Three weeks and four rounds of marketing emails from the state later, nearly 75% of the schools in Wisconsin had taken the Speed Test! Kurt had the data he needed and started telling his peers in other states that the Speed Test could help them too. Over time, we established partnerships with more than 25 states, and 800,000 people in 35,000 schools tested their broadband.
State departments of education had ready-made relationships to help us communicate with school districts, but they weren’t our only outreach partners. We also collaborated with various national and state superintendent, school board, teacher, and technical director associations to amplify our message, increase our credibility, and educate their members on how to close the connectivity gap. With each of these organizations, we partnered to create custom programs to reach their members where it was most impactful. We hosted joint webinars and events, shared knowledge, created newsletter and blog content, and partnered on surveys and reports. Through each touchpoint, we were able to create more opportunities to interact with our school district stakeholders and ultimately convince them to upgrade their broadband infrastructure.
One of the most important contributors to the completion of our mission was the modernization of the FCC’s E-rate program. After our National School Speed Test helped catalyze President Obama to launch his ConnectED initiative, the FCC undertook a review of the E-rate program which provided 70% of the funding for broadband in America’s schools. Historically, E-rate policy had been driven by a coalition of education advocacy organizations and telecommunications companies, who had long sought to protect the program by resisting major changes to it. Fortunately, a few visionary leaders of education advocacy organizations recognized that the combination of our data and their relationships could create a powerful voice in the policy debate to radically improve outcomes for students. We joined forces to push for change, and convinced the FCC to increase E-rate broadband funding by $2.5 billion per year while making the program dramatically more effective in helping schools upgrade their Internet and Wi-Fi infrastructure.
When we began our mission in 2012, we had hypotheses about how to solve the K-12 broadband problem. With the wisdom, data, and support of state broadband network leaders from states such as Maine, Nebraska, North Carolina, and Utah, we were able to turn these hypotheses into a set of upgrade programs that helped upgrade more than 99% of America’s K-12 schools.
State broadband networks came into existence during the 1990s as a way of leveraging aggregated procurement and centralized technical management to deliver affordable and reliable Internet access to schools. By the time we began our work, they had developed a set of best practices around network design, demand aggregation, procurement, and communication that served as a model for how school districts could affordably upgrade their broadband infrastructure. In partnership with state broadband network leaders, we incorporated many of these best practices in our upgrade programs while relying on these leaders to validate our programs with other states and school districts. This gave thousands of districts the confidence to adopt our programs and was critical to the scaling of our on-the-ground work. In addition, by giving us data on the cost of school broadband, state network leaders helped set affordability goals and, over time, drive the cost of school broadband down by 90%. These efforts also helped us convince the FCC to make E-rate purchasing data public.
We would not have succeeded without the help of these partner organizations. Their networks, expertise, and communities were critical to the success of our mission. By partnering with those who were already working on K-12 broadband issues, we were able to reach districts more effectively, accelerate policy change, improve the quality of our upgrade programs, and ultimately shorten the time it took to upgrade the broadband in America’s schools.
Every community has its “gatekeepers” – the people who have been in the trenches every day deciding on policy and action. These influential associations, stakeholders, consultants, and officials are trusted by their constituencies and are an important part of any line of work. By the nature of their role, these influencers and advocates are protective and look out for the best interests of their clients. Because they often have close and trusted relationships with clients, they can be powerful allies and extremely effective channels of communication.
Once we started working closely with school districts across the country, we discovered that some of the most important “gatekeepers” in this space were E-rate consultants. School districts often hire these consultants, who have large numbers of clients and have been working in this sector for decades, to help them file for E-rate funding.
Here’s how we engaged the experts whose partnership was critical to success:
For the first few years of our work, we had an ad hoc – and often one-sided – approach to communication with the E-rate consultant community; we asked them for connectivity and cost data for school districts they worked with, and had little to offer in return.
To establish productive working relationships with E-rate consultants, we needed to demonstrate that we valued their expertise – and could offer our own. To develop a more thoughtful and strategic approach to engaging with the E-rate consultant community, we hired several people with extensive E-rate experience to make sure we addressed the consultants’ primary concerns about our legitimacy and goals.
Our messaging emphasized:
We were often asked some variation of the question, “What’s your angle?” In other words, they wished to know what our true motives were. Our messaging stressed:
Once we had this team in place, we identified the districts most in need of help, and the consultants who worked with them. Initial targeted emails and phone calls were somewhat successful, but the real game changer was developing a series of engaging webinars.
By hosting free webinars on topics that were of interest to both E-rate consultants and their clients, with both in-house and external experts, we were able to:
These online events were so well attended and valued that E-mpa, the professional organization for E-rate consultants, counted the webinars as professional development training hours for its members.
By offering these stakeholders something of value, we were able to build valuable partnerships that helped the consultants work with school districts to upgrade their Internet. We assisted the E-rate consultant community by sharing our data and templates, and helped them with services they didn’t usually offer their clients (procurement and RFP development). They helped us with data collection and clarification, as well as introducing us to school district decision makers. When we could work with these consultants to provide encouragement and support to districts needing upgrades, in compliance with E-rate regulations, it was the definition of win-win-win.
Every year, our relationship with E-rate consultants improved and expanded. The larger firms helped us clarify data for our analysis, and having one point of contact for several, or sometimes even dozens of schools at once was an important force multiplier.
To engage other groups of stakeholders in support of your mission, we recommend:
At EducationSuperHighway, our partnerships were critical to our success. Without the commitments of governors, state legislatures, and state departments of education, we would not have been able to close the classroom connectivity gap.
As we developed those partnerships, we realized we were missing an important industry stakeholder: Internet service providers. Schools needed the help of service providers to get access to better connections, more bandwidth, and more affordable broadband. In order to help school districts do this, we needed to work with service providers and show them the value of the K-12 market.
Our initial approach to the service provider industry was to focus on the high prices they were charging school districts. We hoped that showing the cost discrepancies between what schools and businesses were paying for Internet service would be enough to spark change. While this approach gained reactions, it did not translate into any meaningful success in lowering prices or resolving the actual problem schools faced. We decided to focus instead on engaging Internet providers in a constructive manner, to combine forces to achieve mutual goals.
To bridge the gap between schools and service providers, we needed amicable working relationships. To do this, we:
Once we established partnerships with a number of providers, the next step was to foster and maintain those relationships; communication and collaboration were essential. Our efforts included:
As we began to establish positive relationships with service providers, we knew our next step was to scale these relationships. We started with one-off connections in a few parts of the country, but overtime, we managed to build connections with at least one individual from every Internet provider company across the country. With some service providers, we even built relationships with regional account managers all across the country. For example, with the Internet provider CenturyLink, our relationship began at a local level in Virginia. Overtime, our collaboration grew to the point where they decided to implement an entire time dedicated to schools using the E-rate program across the nation.
Once we had robust relationships with providers, we used data to figure out which service providers could serve each school district and then reached out to encourage them to bid. Through concerted outreach to local, state, and national telecom associations, we were able to expedite the process of meeting and working with new service providers. The visibility of our work with service providers grew as we continued to form solid relationships, creating a more fluid process for future partnerships.
Through these collaborations, we were able to bring new connectivity opportunities to schools and achieve our goal of connecting 99% of public schools to high-speed broadband. Our partnerships had a positive impact in many ways, including:
By collaborating with providers, we were able to introduce them to additional state resources and programs that promoted working with smaller schools through subsidized funding. Establishing these partnerships proved beneficial to our mission by enabling providers to collaborate and think more creatively about how they could serve schools with challenging circumstances, such as remote physical locations or limited financial/human resources.
Our open lines of communication with both school districts and service providers allowed us to bring many options to the table when schools sought new Internet deals. As a result, this accelerated a downward trend of Internet pricing to schools over the last few years.
Partnering with service providers gave us credibility with both the telecom industry and the schools needing upgrades. In turn, we were able to refer new customers to service providers, who were able to use our tools and data to find new leads without our help.
Having Internet service providers aligned with our mission of connecting America’s students fostered congenial relationships between providers and school districts – ultimately, both groups achieved success by working together.
While the support and active participation of governors’ offices was essential to EducationSuperHighway’s mission, once we began working on the ground, finding reliable allies who were trusted by states’ educational communities — and who could facilitate our work with school districts — was essential. While by no means comprehensive, we want to highlight some of the broadband leaders who went above and beyond to help close the classroom connectivity gap.
State E-rate Director Milan Eaton helped close the connectivity gap by making a case for the availability of $11M of funding to help cover infrastructure build-out costs to school districts. He exemplified the way a state E-rate director can serve school districts – he crisscrossed the state, held training sessions, and assisted small school districts with work they could not do in house.
Chief Technology Officer Chris Campbell and State E-rate Coordinator Todd Lawrence helped secure the Idaho State Matching Fund, which funded the non-E-rate portion of monthly recurring bills for E-rate eligible services. They both supported school districts by reviewing projects for funding eligibility and aided those that needed more specialized help.
Digital Access Coordinator Mindy Fiscus helped close the connectivity gap by hosting live sessions around the state to provide hands-on E-rate support to school districts without technology staff. She also helped pass over $16M in state matching funding in order for Illinois school districts to get access to fiber infrastructure.
KSDE’s Director of Information Technology Kathi Grossenbacher, State E-rate Coordinator Sarah Palubinski, and Deputy Commissioner Dale Dennis helped close the connectivity gap by championing EducationSuperHighway’s presence in the state and helping create a case for the Kansas State Matching Fund.
As the Director of Digital Learning, Ken Klau worked closely with us on the Digital Connections initiative. His belief that students deserve equitable access to a high quality public education kept him focused on the strategy for rethinking the structure and delivery of learning, building a more student-centered system of public education, and creating the next generation of K-12 learning environments.
Executive Director of the School Administrators of Montana Kirk Miller helped close the connectivity gap by helping EducationSuperHighway gain credibility across the state. He helped us learn the in’s and out’s of challenging school district landscapes, which allowed us to strategize and provide specific and hands-on help to schools across Montana.
State Broadband Development Manager Jojo Myers Campos helped close the connectivity gap by bringing together stakeholders across towns to build business cases for upgrades. Utilizing the combined power of several anchor institutions, the Nevada Connect Kids Initiative has been instrumental in upgrading K-12 schools so that students can take advantage of digital learning in the classroom.
Director of Governmental Relations Jennifer Bergland helped close the connectivity gap by making a case for the availability of $25M in funding to support Texas schools with their fiber infrastructure construction projects. She was our first contact in the state, and helped get us connected to the Governor’s office and key stakeholders across Texas.
State E-rate Coordinator Clementina Jimenez helped close the connectivity gap by being the state’s E-rate subject matter expert. She helped school districts with technology work they couldn’t do in-house and offered support by holding Category 2 “E-rate Office Hours” for districts without technology teams.
Over the course of eight years, EducationSuperHighway created and maintained partnerships with a number of educational organizations and associations to drive policy change.
Here is who we worked with, broken out by major milestones, and the impact those partnerships had on the journey to close the classroom connectivity gap.
When we launched the School Speed Test in 2012, we struggled to get school districts to take the test until the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction helped us with district outreach. Based on our success in Wisconsin, we worked with departments of education in 30 states to conduct 800,000 school speed tests. Thanks to their help we were able to collect the first dataset on the state of broadband in America’s K-12 schools – showing that 90% of students in the U.S. needed Internet upgrades.
When the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) published its initial broadband imperative report in 2012, they established the now FCC-recognized benchmark of 100 Kbps per student as the minimum bandwidth needed in the classroom for digital learning. We partnered with them to build consensus around these goals. Their recommendations, along with our School Speed Test results, helped us lay the groundwork for E-rate modernization.
After E-rate modernization, states had an opportunity to accelerate fiber construction to schools by creating matching funds. We worked with governors, state departments of education, state legislatures, and SETDA. Together, we helped states create and size these funds, develop policies to allocate and distribute funding, and monitor the success of their programs. Today there are 23 approved state matching funds and over 99% of schools have fiber connections.
We partnered with the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), the premier professional association for school technology leaders, to develop the Connectivity Cost Model, which estimated how much money the E-rate program would need to be able to ensure that every school in the country would be able to meet the new broadband goals. The FCC used the model to determine how much the E-rate funding cap needed to be raised to meet the goals of E-rate modernization. It was ultimately a big factor in their decision to add another $2.5B per year to the E-rate program funding cap, to ensure that every school had scalable infrastructure, sufficient bandwidth, and funding to support Wi-Fi in the classroom.
When it became clear that bureaucratic red tape was preventing many school districts from installing fiber and upgrading classroom Internet, we engaged governors, senators, and the press to sound the alarm to the FCC. As a result, the FCC directed USAC to speed up the process. These actions resulted in nearly a 25% increase in fiber projects in one year.
While much of our work centered around getting school districts connected to affordable fiber infrastructure, we also wanted to ensure that schools had robust Wi-Fi networks. The FCC’s Category 2 funds help school districts cover these costs. Until 2019, the Category 2 program was in a “trial” period while the FCC assessed the effectiveness of this new formula for Wi-Fi funding.
We partnered with Funds for Learning (FFL), CoSN, the Schools, Health, and Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLB), and the State E-rate Coordinators Alliance (SECA) to encourage the FCC to make this program permanent for school districts. The FCC agreed in 2019 – ensuring that schools would have the resources they needed to consistently upgrade their Wi-Fi networks.
Strong partnerships can help you advance your mission and create policy change. In order to create and sustain these partnerships, we recommend:
Over the course of 8 years, EducationSuperHighway had more than 130 team members. We would not have been able to find, recruit, and train the talent we needed to complete our mission without the help of these organizations: