Philadelphia Seeks to be Hotbed of Ed Tech Despite Local Challenges

According to Bobbi Kurshan, the executive director of academic innovation at the Penn Graduate School of Education since last fall, University of Pennsylvania system should take advantage of its unique position and work to foster more education technology start-ups under its auspices. Ed tech brought more than $1.1 billion in venture funding last year, and if Kurshan – who has significant private sector experience – has her way, some of that money will come to Pennsylvania in the form of new business.

A successful ed tech startup needs more than seed funding and business advice. It also needs support from education researchers as well as from teachers and schools that will use its product. Bringing all of them together is a difficult proposition, but not as difficult in a university system setting. The University of Pennsylvania is in an excellent position to provide access to all those benefits in one place.

Trying to bring those four constituencies closer together is one goal of the business-plan competition, begun in 2010. Ten early stage companies – including Autism Expressed of Philadelphia – will vie for a total of $145,000 in seven prizes in what is one of the richer competitions geared toward the ed-tech world.

The prize money has grown substantially since the Milken Family Foundation provided $25,000 for the best plan and $15,000 for the runner-up in in the first competition. This year, K12 Inc., a publicly traded online education company in Herndon, Va., will contribute $25,000 for the best business plan incorporating technology to address challenges in kindergarten through 12th grade online learning.

Each participant gets 10 minutes to pitch the judges, who will have 24 hours to decide who gets the prize money.

While the higher education system in Pennsylvania is looking to the future, the Philadelphia school district is still grappling with the way to keep schools open. Mayor Michael Nutter, along with the City Finance Director Rob Dubow are working to put together a budget proposal to fund the city’s schools which will total about $60 million in additional funding.

Nutter isn’t clear on how the money will be found, but has already said that he wants to keep city revenues flat.

Nutter has previously rejected raising property taxes to fund the schools and Dubow has now added that a wage tax hike is off the table. Nutter has previously indicated that he wants to lower rather than raise wage taxes.

The city introduced cuts prior to the recession which had to be suspended to cover a growing budget deficit.

So without touching the city’s two largest taxes (which are projected to provide about 69 percent of revenue next year), how will the city find $60 million?

In bits and pieces, it seems. A proposal that may have wide support is raising the “liquor by the drink” tax from 10 percent to 15 percent. A Nutter spokesman recently said the mayor supports such a hike, which would bring in an estimated $20 million in new revenue. Raising the tobacco sales tax is also said to be on the table. And, of course, the city could cut spending or forgo some of Nutter’s proposals for new expenditures, like $1 million to increase library hours and another $1 million to offset tuition hikes at the Community College of Philadelphia.

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