Under budget pressure state CIOs work to find solutions to education, skills gap


Hear the title Chief Information Officer (CIO), and you might think of server rooms and IT guys. However, as budget pressure mounts on state and local governments, CIOs are stepping into fill a variety of roles – especially in the education system. As CivSource reported last month, according to a recent survey conducted by the National League of Cities, municipal officials cite concerns over education and a skills gap in the American labor force as key issues for economic recovery. Historically, that has often meant trying to find ways to increase education spend per student or adding job training programs. Now, with the advent of bringing technology into the classroom, supporting education may mean giving the state CIO a little more to work with.

Education systems nationwide have sought to improve the skills gap by creating better curricula around science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM education. Much of that work is supported by the Department of Education, National Science Foundation, and the Department of Heath and Human Services. All of these agencies will take at least a 5% cut under the sequester. Not only will those cuts hurt higher education, but they will also specifically impact teacher training programs for elementary and high schools. Those programs often provide training on technology curriculum.

At the higher education level, greater emphasis is also going to degree programs in STEM subjects. But, now, another cloud dots the horizon – the Higher Education Act, last reauthorized in 2008, must be renewed this year. That law deals with such issues as federal financial aid programs for college students, and repayment. Though initial hearings have begun, recent history tells us that swift federal action on a potentially divisive bill like this, is unlikely.

Taken together, these factors don’t offer much hope for helping the american education system become more competitive. Now, some vendors are stepping in to try to offer solutions. Verizon’s Enterprise Solutions group has an education group for state and local school systems, typically offering servers, routers and the back-end of education technology. Now, the company has also pushed into the classroom through the Verizon Foundation.

The Verizon Foundation provides content, training and technology for teachers and students in STEM programs nationwide. The effort is backed by community partnerships and support from within the Verizon Enterprise Solutions group. While the content and training brings in teachers and students, the technology offering brings state CIOs into the conversation. Together, stakeholders are looking for ways to leverage technology to make education relevant and cost-effective.

“We spend a lot of time trying to bring CIOs, educators and officials together,” explains Troy Cromwell, Group Vice President – State and Local Government, Verizon Enterprise Solutions in an interview with CivSource. “We are looking for ways to change and improve education, and to help fill the job openings in the communities we work with.”

Listen to any conversation happening at the state and local level about how to fix the economy or education and the skills gap comes up. Corporations already have unfilled positions in skilled labor and technology. Mobile technologies, like tablet computers, can address some of these needs by being part of learning in the classroom. “If schools are buying iPads, they can stop buying paper textbooks, that’s an immediate savings,” Cromwell notes.

For CIOs used to deploying fleets of devices for government agencies, they may be uniquely well positioned to help schools handle device deployment in the classroom. On the vendor side, companies like Verizon are trying to craft solutions that CIOs and school systems can use. “We spend a lot of time trying to tie things together,” he says.

“There are layers to all of this, you have to find ways to create a reality based curriculum, you have to offer independent instruction that teachers can monitor, and on the other side, you also have to find ways to make government work palatable to people coming out of schools. The skills gap goes both ways.”

Cromwell says that in his conversations with state and local IT shops, CIOs face the same issues in government corporations face in the private sector – positions at all levels go unfilled as the talent pool stays stubbornly small. For state officials outside of IT or education, this also means taking a new look at how budgets are allocated across agency silos to take into account potentially linked outcomes.

On the foundation side, Verizon has hosted app challenges to build out education applications. They are also creating a free content library for educators and students. On the enterprise side, the vendor relationship has taken on some of the trappings of a town hall meeting, stakeholders throughout the community are coming to the table with Verizon, and public officials to discuss needs they have now and in the future.

“The tax base is going to change as baby boomers retire, and immigration redefines what things look like for revenue. We try to meet school districts where they are at, and bring in the surrounding community to find solutions. The changes are coming, some of them are already here. We at least have to start the conversation,” Cromwell says.