This one puts the “back room” in back room deal. Something’s rotten in the state of Los Angeles, specifically with the school district. In a sweetheart, carefully calculated and shadowy deal with the educational software company Pearson and slick technology giant Apple, LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy, with an assist from his second-in-command Jaime Aquino, signed a contract to purchase $1 billion in curriculum and iPads for every student in the district. There were so many problems with the way business was conducted in the awarding of the contract that rival companies immediately cried foul. Then there was the roll-out itself, where the district lacked a cohesive plan for distribution and monitoring of the devices and students quickly found a way to defeat the security software allowing them to surf the web at will.
Once the deal came to light, and the distribution and maintenance turned into a nightmare, Deasy cancelled the contract and issued a big “never mind” to students, teachers, parents, and administrators throughout the district, the second largest in the nation with 700,000 students and 46,000 teachers. The details of the deal are sleazy even in the face of Deasy’s claim that he was trying to level the playing field for students who lack the financial resources to obtain the latest educational software and technology.
First of all, the “latest technology” might be a bit of a stretch. In a recent batch of emails that have surfaced, Deasy and Aquino strategized with both Apple and Pearson to make their bids the most attractive to the district and its Board of Education. However, the equipment was purchased at full price from Apple, even though the iPad was an older model about to be replaced by a newer version. LAUSD purchased 600,000 units with the software provided by Pearson, a major educational publishing company and a key player in the Common Core curriculum development. The iPads were distributed in 47 schools during the 2013-2014 school year before problems surfaced. The software had glitches and students could override the security software and access questionable content and websites. When called on the carpet to answer questions about the deal and the botched roll-out, Deasy and company deceived the school board and misled them about the problems that were quickly snowballing behind the scenes. Meanwhile, competing companies in the bidding process smelled a rat. Apple charged LAUSD more than it charged other school districts for the same equipment. This led to charges that Deasy and Aquino had become “too cozy” with both Pearson and Apple leading up to the signing of the contract. There was an appearance of conflict of interest as well as a lack of transparency that was unacceptable in such a large public institution like the LAUSD.
In an era of tight budgets and the memory of sweeping layoffs still fresh, is spending a billion dollars on aging equipment really a boon to the education of students? Technology is a tool. I agree that using technology in the classroom opens up vast possibilities for lessons and creative teaching that will enhance student learning, but it is only a tool. Would giving students a pad of writing paper make them better writers? No. Would the money be better spent hiring more teachers and paying the existing ones better salaries? Yes. A classroom needs a teacher, a living, breathing educator, to take the available tools and utilize them for creative and enhanced learning. An iPad alone is just a bunch of expensive circuit boards and computer chips without a guide to facilitate exploration and learning. Sure students now are very familiar with computers and tablets—as we saw when kids took the iPads and modified them around the security software—but a teacher focuses the learning with the devices and utilizes them in a way that benefits student learning. Purchasing and implementing technology should be done with careful planning, organization, and oversight. The process and utilization must be assessed and changes made to get the most benefit for every dollar spent.
Another question that must be asked is how much stock does Deasy own in Apple? For that matter, how much of the California State Teachers’ Retirement System portfolio is made up of Apple stock? As with most stories of government waste and back room deals, we must ask who stands to gain from this contract? We must always remember the mantra of Deep Throat in the Watergate affair: “Follow the money.” This situation warrants a full investigation with transparency. If Deasy, Aquino or any other official of the LAUSD acted inappropriately, heads must roll.
This situation here in Los Angeles reflects a greater problem in school districts across the country. Investors see education as a potential money-maker. They buy their way into classrooms and try to streamline and refocus the mission of schools to get a return on this investment. They introduce business principles to education, asking “What do we want our product to look like upon graduation?” “Our product” is a human being. Schools are not assembly lines. Education is not always quantifiable or accurately measured by standardized tests. Just as every human being is unique, so is that person’s intellectual development. I appreciate people like Bill Gates getting involved in a philanthropic way with schools, but we must make sure that the students are the beneficiaries and that schools prosper with increased graduation rates and higher standards in the classroom. Steering large lucrative contracts through the school budget system to benefit investors at Apple or Pearson or Microsoft does not mean that students are always coming out on top. With large technology purchases or sweeping changes in curriculum and standards such as the implementation of Common Core, we must evaluate who stands to gain and how will these things benefit students? Bill and Melinda Gates will directly benefit from their $150 million dollar investment in Common Core with schools purchasing software and materials from Microsoft.
Finally, I see this fiasco as just one more example of the need to break up the LAUSD. The bureaucracy and waste has surfaced more than a few times over the years, and the whole enterprise could benefit from becoming leaner and more efficient. Although it is anecdotal evidence, I’ve spoken with a few Catholic school teachers over the years who have been the beneficiaries of great giveaways of textbooks and materials from the LAUSD. These were discontinued or older edition textbooks that the school district allows private schools to take free of charge. The teachers were astounded to discover whole pallets of textbooks, some of them still shrink-wrapped or with spines uncracked. The Catholic schools picked up loads of books that had never been used. The LAUSD, with its almost $7 billion budget, has bargaining power with its vendors, and therefore, should negotiate heavily when purchasing anything, especially technology and textbooks. These negotiations and the people who conduct them should be beyond reproach and every contract should be entered into with transparency and full disclosure. Anything else is unacceptable.