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L.A. Superintendent Deasy Defends iPad Contract From 'Political' Criticism

Superintendent John Deasy has launched a vigorous defense of his oft-maligned initiative to give all Los Angeles Unified School District students iPads, penning a six-page letter to the L.A. school board in response to mounting criticism that the high-profile technology initiative was flawed by conflicts of interest, possible manipulation of the procurement process, and ongoing implementation woes.

In the letter, Deasy defended the relationships that he and senior staff had with Apple and Pearson, the vendors who last year won a $30 million contract to provide iPads pre-loaded with a new digital curriculum to 30,000 students in 47 schools during the first phase of what was expected to ultimately be a system-wide, billion-dollar technology initiative.10pearson_deasy280.jpg

He also defended the LAUSD's bidding process, which has come under fire for possibly tilting the scales in favor of the two vendors.

"In view of the many false and misleading statements of fact that have been made public for what seems to be primarily political reasons, I believe it is incumbent on me to set the record straight so that an extremely important initiative does not continue to be undermined or compromised," Deasy wrote.

Shortly after the criticism surfaced late last month, first in the form of a board report, then in a series of media articles, Deasy announced that he had decided to "halt the continuation" of the LAUSD's contract with Apple, Inc. and reopen the district's bid process. 

The 108-page board committee report detailed numerous flaws—and identified some positive highlights—from the procurement process that launched the district's "Common Core Technology Project," as well as the rocky implementation of the initiative during the 2013-14 school year. Among the committee's major concerns was the decision to roll out iPads system-wide without sufficient evidence of the academic benefits of using a single device for all students, as well as the appearance of possible conflicts of interest on the part of senior LAUSD officials.

Almost immediately after, the radio station KPCC, the Los Angeles Times, and others published reports based on emails between Deasy, then-Chief Academic Officer Jaime Aquino, and officials from Apple and Pearson obtained through a public records request—messages that critics say indicate a relationship that was too close given the large contract that would ultimately be at stake.

In his letter, Deasy wrote that such communications are standard in the course of being the superintendent of a large urban school district and derided the notion that such interactions are a sign of wrongdoing.

"It now appears that some believe that it is inappropriate for officials of a school district to have any contact with vendors or leading educators regarding developments in the field—for fear that at some future date there might be a more formal partnership," he wrote. "Under those circumstances we could not give Advanced Placement, GRE, or SAT because I have had meetings with the president of College Board."

Deasy also defended the LAUSD's original bid process, from which, he wrote, he had completely recused himself due to holding in a retirement account 15 shares of Apple stock worth $7,793.70.

Because there is "not even a tentative hook upon which to hang allegations of wrongful conduct," Deasy wrote, "detractors have shifted to alleging that there was too 'cozy' a relationship between District staff and some vendors. Such an allegation is baseless."

The letter also defends educational publisher Pearson, a subcontractor to electronics-manufacturing giant Apple responsible for creating a new digital curriculum intended to become the primary instructional resource for all grades K-12 in the LAUSD. As Education Week reported last fall, the rollout of that curriculum when it consisted of just a few sample lessons per grade was a source of confusion and consternation for many teachers and critics. And in its report last month, the board committee charged with reviewing the initiative found that even last spring, there were still gaping holes in the product. 

The status of the Common Core System of Courses, as it is formally known, is still unclear: In his letter, Deasy writes that the new curriculum was approved for adoption by the state of California and offers this careful endorsement:

"To the best of my knowledge, Pearson has followed the contractual agreements between LAUSD and Apple—as Apple's subcontractor in all aspects with regard to content construction. And to the best of my knowledge, Pearson has submitted all of their lessons and units required by the phase roll out."

But in an interview Tuesday afternoon, before the Deasy letter was released, David Zlotchew, the chief of staff to LAUSD board member Monica Ratliff, who chaired the committee, said there is still confusion about exactly when the complete set of units, lessons, and digital instructional materials will be rolled out to schools.

Zlotchew also questioned what the earlier announcement that the LAUSD's contract with Apple would be halted actually means in practice, noting that the district was not at the time on the hook to purchase any more iPads and had already decided to begin testing laptops in some high schools.

"It is imperative that we evaluate [the project's current] phases and analyze our data prior to contracting for more devices," Ratliff said in a statement provided to Education Week. "The public expects, demands, and deserves that LAUSD make the best possible choices for our students as we continue to implement the one-to-one initiative throughout the District."

The current state of the initiative, then, is both confusing and somewhat in flux: An announcement on the homepage for the Common Core Technology Project indicates that 47 schools that have already received tablets will continue to use them, while 11 more schools will receive tablets, 20 high schools will receive laptops, and 27 schools will receive devices to be determined by the new bid process, all beginning this school year.

At the conclusion of his letter, Deasy makes clear that the concerns being raised about the initiative are a source of frustration.

"As the new school year begins, we are all reading about how millions of children across our country are coming home with technology loaded with exciting apps. Yet in LAUSD we continue to focus on maligning our work and not on what is best for our children," he writes.

"This has been a massive undertaking for a district of our size and one that we should have undertaken. But I feel that we have lost the discussion about what is best for our children. We only see the adults bickering, and I must say this bothers me."

Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy sends a text before addressing administrators early this school year. He has championed the use of iPads in city schools. --Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/MCT

Follow @BenjaminBHerold and @EdWeekEdTech for the latest news on ed-tech policies, practices, and trends.

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