A massive expansion of classroom technology has come to a grinding halt in Los Angeles.
The LA Unified School District had planned to buy some 700,000 iPads for its students and teachers. The Apple tablets would include learning software built by publishing giant Pearson. But Superintendent John Deasy announced earlier this week he is canceling the contract and restarting the bidding process.
The decision comes on the heels of an investigation by NPR member station KPCC, which obtained emails between Deasy and tech executives that bring into question whether the initial bidding process was fair. First, some context:
The goal of the expansion was simple yet ambitious: to equip every student in the nation's second-largest school district with a tablet computer. The expected price tag for equipment, software and Wi-Fi upgrades to schools: $1.3 billion.
The project has been controversial from the outset. Critics argued that it was too expensive in a time of dramatic budget cuts. Some also worried that the rollout had been rushed, that the software wasn't finished and had glitches, and that the district's infrastructure, training and security procedures were insufficient for this kind of effort.
Then came the emails.
"Looking forward to further work together for our youth in Los Angeles!" Deasy wrote to Marjorie Scardino, then Pearson's CEO, on May 22, 2012, after hearing an initial pitch over lunch.
"Dear John, It's I who should thank you," Scardino replied. "I really can't wait to work with you."
KPCC reports these notes were going back and forth long before the tech contract was ultimately opened for competitive bidding:
KPCC's investigation found Deasy and his deputies communicated with Pearson employees over pricing, teacher training and technical support — specifications that later resembled the district's request for proposals from vendors. Pearson and Apple emerged as the winning bidders and were awarded the now-abandoned contract in June 2013.
After the emails were published, school board member Steve Zimmer questioned whether the district stifled competition.
"We're dealing with hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money. We have to make sure this is completely ethical and above board," he said.
Other key findings from the KPCC investigation:
- Jaime Aquino, the district's former head of curriculum, expressed reservations about the cost, infrastructure readiness and timing of the iPad/Pearson plan.
- Deasy personally pitched Apple on the Pearson partnership.
- Pearson's charitable foundation subsidized a training session for 50 LAUSD employees at a poolside resort and gave participants free iPads.
- Pearson's sales representative, Judy Codding, argued against a request for proposals, the key part of a competitive bidding process: "I don't know why there would have to be an RFP."
While the bidding process has been restarted, the district had already bought about 75,000 iPads, roughly half of which were loaded with Pearson's educational software. And, KPCC reports, that software is unfinished and problematic:
A year after the purchase, the software on LA Unified iPads still doesn't include many of the simulations, games and interactive tools promised. Officials gave Pearson until November to deliver the finished product.
Also, California education officials have only approved Pearson's math courses for grades kindergarten through eighth grade. And the state found errors in every grade, from simple problems, like typos, to bigger issues, like learning standards that were not correctly applied.
The digital expansion in LA was meant to correspond with California's adoption and implementation of the Common Core State Standards. As KPCC reports, the district Deasy took over needed serious help, and not simply with that Core rollout:
He had inherited a school system in crisis: Thousands of Los Angeles teachers, counselors and librarians had lost their jobs during the recession; fewer than half of students were reading at grade level; more than 10,000 dropped out of high school every year. For Deasy, transformation was not just possible; it was an urgent mandate.
Deasy would not comment for this story. But he told KPCC in May 2012:
"I'm not going to be interested in looking at third-graders and saying, 'Sorry, this is the year you don't learn to read,' or to juniors and saying, 'You don't get to graduate.' So the pace needs to be quick, and we make no apologies for that."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Next we'll report of the problems with the largest school technology expansion in the country. The Los Angeles Unified School District plans to buy iPads for students and teachers. It's a giant school district, so that is 700,000 iPads. The tablets would include learning software from Pearson, which is the largest publishing company in the world.
But the superintendent of the school district now says he's putting the contract for that technology out for new bids. The decision comes after an investigation by member station KPCC. Emails between district officials and Pearson executives bring into question the fairness of the bidding process. Annie Gilbertson reports.
ANNIE GILBERTSON, BYLINE: Before we get to the emails, you should know lots of people in Los Angeles were thrilled when, last summer, officials announced every student would be getting an iPad, like these kids at Baldwin Hills Elementary School.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: Everybody here has an iPad.
UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: All right.
GILBERTSON: Superintendent John Deasy said then the technology would transform classrooms for LA's struggling students. But problems quickly surfaced. Just a few weeks after getting their iPads last fall, students Robert Sandoval and Rosary Sea at Diego Rivera High School, south of downtown LA, were frustrated.
ROBERT SANDOVAL: Well, the Wi-Fi seems to be shutting down.
ROSARY SEA: The images wouldn't come up and nothing.
GILBERTSON: The Wi-Fi at most of the district schools wasn't strong enough. And Pearson's software simply wasn't ready. The company Pearson sold LA school officials on digital lessons it was developing for the Common Core State Standards. But Pearson's Judy Codding said at the time that kind of task takes a while.
JUDY CODDING: Because, remember, the Common Core State Standards were relatively new.
GILBERTSON: And here's where the emails come in. Pearson began conversations with top LA school officials a year before the district opened the contract for bidding. Emails showed Deasy had lunch with then CEO of Pearson, Marjorie Scardino, and he was smitten. He wrote, needless to say we have been in furious and exciting conversations. Deasy said he would get back to Scardino within a week with a plan.
Emails showed Deasy then met with Apple and talked about partnering with Pearson. When his team finally opened the bid, what they asked for looked a lot like what Apple and Pearson had been selling, down to the technical support and teacher training. Apple and Pearson won the contract worth about half a billion. That was before the emails emerged. Now school board member Steve Zimmer is questioning whether the school district stifled competition.
STEVE ZIMMER: We're dealing with hundreds of millions dollars of taxpayer money. We have to make sure that this is something that is completely ethical and completely above board.
GILBERTSON: Superintendent John Deasy, who refused to be interviewed for the story, has said he did nothing improper. It's not uncommon to meet with companies ahead of a bid. Once the bid opened, Deasy said he followed the rules and cut off communication. Some of the superintendent's supporters on the school board are standing by his side, among them, Monica Garcia.
MONICA GARCIA: I am confident that the team put together what they believed was the best, and then we need to let them do their jobs.
GILBERTSON: Now that Deasy has crumpled up the contract, that job will involve starting over, deciding what tools are best for Los Angeles students and which tech companies should provide them, though the district already paid for 75,000 iPads, many with the Pearson software that it can't return. For NPR News, I'm Annie Gilbertson in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.