LAUSD iPad Scandal Breeds Costly Distrust
As readers of Education Week already know, the Federal Bureau of Investigation paid a surprise visit to the Los Angeles Unified School District on Monday, seizing 20 boxes of records related to the district's troubled $1.3-billion iPad purchase program.
Howard Blume at the Los Angeles Times reported that a federal grand jury is examining the matter, this some nine months after a Los Angeles County district attorney's office closed its own review without filing charges. As he reported:
"The iPads-for-all project was a signature initiative of former Supt. John Deasy, who resigned under pressure in October. Deasy said he had no knowledge of the FBI investigation and had not been contacted by any law enforcement agency."
"No one has spoken to me," he said. "I have no comment as I do not know anything about this."
Current superintendent Ramon Cortines suspended any additional purchases under the contracts.
All this raises questions, but perhaps not the ones you were asking. I won't speculate about the possibility of criminality, but I believe that the current iPad scandal represents a new low point in the dysfunctional distrust in relationships surrounding the district.
The problem for LAUSD is not the cost of computer tablets; it's the price of distrust.
There are nearly 1,000 other school districts in California. All of them buy technology and curriculum material, many from Apple and Pearson, the same vendors that LAUSD used. In many, if not most of these districts, something akin to a strategic partnership has developed.
I checked my perceptions with a couple superintendents yesterday, and they affirm that close working relationships between vendors and school districts are not unusual. They talk, email one another, and discuss the advantages of particular products and services and how those fit with the work of the schools. All understand that there is a fine line between bid rigging and a preference for a particular vendor's products and services. Absent obvious criminality where school folks or their families are taking money from vendors, no one could remember a time when the cops came calling.
Which brings me back to LAUSD. More than investing in iPads, computers, and fiber optics, more than a new curriculum aligned with Common Core standards, LAUSD needs to invest in building trust. The toxic politics of distrust in LAUSD acts as a tax on children. It's more expensive to get things done in Los Angeles than in other places because endless cycles of low trust create rules within rules. Every dollar spent on lawyers and procedures is a dollar not spent on kids and curriculum.
There is a false belief that it's possible to create procedures that can't be outwitted or contracts so tightly written that that they will prevent chicanery.
We know trust counts in urban schools. In an important book, based on a decade's research into the Chicago Public Schools, Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider concluded a decade ago that trust improved the routine work of schools and is a key resource for reform.
Trust is built with relationships, not machines. It's reciprocal. Each party understands their obligations as well as the expectations they have for others. For a school community to work, or for a school district to work, these understandings need to be played out daily, and the folks at the top need to model them at the bottom.
Respect, personal regard, competence—I need to believe that you can actually do what you say you are intending to do—are all part of trust along with personal integrity.
For LAUSD, these are not soft skills. As Bryk and Schneider show, high trust schools educate children better.