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Education Publishing and the Economic Stimulus

865433_money_mattersWhat impact will the economic stimulus have on educational materials and technology? A front page New York Times article yesterday left no doubt that education will be a significant part of the legislation. The Times reports that the total education allocation could be as much as $75-$95* billion a year over current allocations for the next two years. In sector that accounts for about $530 billion in total expenditures, 92% of which has traditionally come from state and local taxes, this represents a seismic shift in the Federal Government’s influence on the market.

The questions executives in the industry have to wrestle with are how much of the total will be spent on instructional materials, when will funds flow, and what products will schools buy? The answers to these questions will drive investments, hiring, and M&A for the next couple of years.

I’ve talked to a few folks around the industry to see what people are thinking and the notes below represent a collective set of insights. It is still early days, the legislation probably won’t be in a final format until mid to late February, but many companies are making decisions now about their ’09 plans.

How Much Will Be Spent on Instructional Materials?

Historically about 1%-2% of education funding is spent on textbooks and supplemental resources and another 1%-2% is spent on education technology. 70%-80% of education funding goes to salaries. The question is will those ratios hold up with this new funding?

I’m betting that the percentage for materials and tech will be higher than normal – 4%-6% of the total is an educated guess. The bulk of the funds will still go to salaries – but it won’t be for hiring, it will used to avert layoffs. Schools really don’t like to hire people with transitory funds. Between unions and other requirements if they can’t see sustained funding they will use the rest of the funds for infrastructure and other one-time purchases. A good chunk will also go to construction and deferred maintenance which could should boost the technology side of the equation.

Education companies have no compunction about scaling up and down based on market conditions – witness the efforts around any major adoption on the upside or the rolling layoffs at HRH on the downside. If the goal is creating new jobs quickly steering funds to instructional materials will have an immediate impact.

Rather than a contraction it is possible that we could actually see growth in our sector this year. If the annual increase is $80 billion then anywhere from $3 b to $4.7 b could flow to materials and technology. At least half of that would replace funds that have been cut or allocated elsewhere already, so the net impact could be $1b to $2.3 b in increased spending, or about 10% growth in the market. This would create a lot of publishing jobs if it happens.

If I’m wrong and the traditional ratios hold then we’d see flat sales year over year as the infusion replaces funds that the states have cut or will be cutting soon. Either way the stimulus is good news for education companies.

One huge caveat is that it is possible that states that are particularly strapped (e.g. California and Florida) would use the Federal infusion into education to move funds they would have spent there to other parts of their budgets. This could result in no net improvement or still a contraction in education spending depending on how dire their overall budgets are. If you have significant sales in one of these states you should pay particular attention to how the stimulus is implemented locally.

When Will Schools Start Spending?

NFImageImportThe consensus is that the impact on publishers will be fairly immediate even if the federal funds don’t start flowing for a few months. Most School Districts are sitting on budgets that were allocated and approved last year – in other words the funding is there, they just aren’t spending it. Once Administrators are confident that the new money will be available from the Feds they are likely to restart spending from their current budgets. Since the significant portion of the education buying cycle is still ahead of us we may actually see a fairly normal year through August.

Note that any indecision about how to implement the program at the state level could delay schools releasing current funds until those questions are resolved.

The implication for companies is that you should be out working the pipeline for the big deals that could close in May-August. If the bill passes in February by late April or May you should start to have a handle on how schools are going to react and you can adjust at that time.

What Products Will Schools Buy?

The impact will be uneven across the industry. In this economic climate and with these funds there are types of products that will do better and some subject areas that will be favored.

Because the funding is only for a couple of years Districts will be loathe to commit to anything that requires ongoing expenditures. This means that subscription products and products that have big annual support fees or large infrastructure requirements won’t do as well as one time purchases. A print reading program will probably beat out a subscription based on-line reading program in this climate because it costs less and it is a one time purchase.

1139041_poor_eyesightBy subject area the goals of NCLB aren’t disappearing so expect to see an ongoing focus on Reading and Math. STEM is also a clearly stated priority of the new administration (see Obama’s statements) so I would expect to see a heightened priority in this area. Many states are now testing Science which would couple local pressure with Federal priorities.

The legislation is also targeting existing programs that have been historically considered partially funded mandates – notably Title 1 (economically disadvantaged schools) and IDEA (Special Education). These are long term federal priorities in education and do not require extended arguments over program design and implementation. Focusing here is smart politics if the goal is getting funds released quickly.

Companies that provide professional development may also do well since Title 1 has significant set asides for training. One of my contacts also speculated that Districts might be willing to invest more in their current teachers by hiring contractors to be in the buildings doing longitudinal on-site PD for the next couple of years rather than hiring new staff.

Conclusions

This legislation is good news for our industry. At a minimum it may replace funds that have been cut by the states and on the upside it could actually create some growth in the market. Companies that provide products with a one-time purchase that target core subject areas and can be purchased with Title 1 or IDEA funds should do very well indeed.

If you would like to disagree or add something to the conversation please post a comment or send me a guest blog post. Guest posts are very welcome, if you would like to know more please send me a note.

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*A note on the numbers. The total federal education budget under the legislation could be as much as $150 billion a year for the next two years. Since the Feds are already spending about $60 billion we have structured this analysis around the incremental $80-$90 billion.

The ideas presented here are speculative, general, and are not business advice. The implications for any specific company should be analyzed to craft a specific response to the market. Full disclaimer here.

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2 Responses to “Education Publishing and the Economic Stimulus”

  1. David Holford says:

    A thoughtful and informative post. I do hope you are right! As a fulltime freelance writer/editor for some 15 years (mainly middle- and high-school social studies, although I have developed product for as low as grade 4), I have rarely had to look for work. Instead it has come to me–in fact, more than I could accept. However, about a year ago the work slowly began drying up. Today, once I complete the test-prep book I currently am writing, for the first time in 15 years, barring anything unforeseen, I will have nothing on my plate. Even more discouraging is that a couple of fairly highly placed educational publishing company executives have advised me that their strategy is to keep as much work in house as possible for the next couple of years. So I have to say that I don’t quite share your fairly optimistic outlook. I hope I’m wrong and I also hope that I’m still in business long enough to find out.

  2. Lee Wilson says:

    David,
    Sorry to hear that your work is slowing down. I’d knock around looking at projects that target intervention or Special Education. Both of those are being particularly well funded under ARRA.

    Also – come on over and join the Education Business Consulting Professionals group we have going on LinkedIn – there may be some good connections for you there.

    Also – I highly recommend blogging. It drove my consulting business until I joined PCI a couple of months ago.

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