iHave a Dream: The unanswered questions behind LA's ed tech fiasco
Remember that crazy billion-dollar scheme cooked up by LA to equip every public school student in the city with their very own iPad? When it was announced earlier this year, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) superintendent John Deasy described the plan in terms of economic justice. To him, iPads weren't just overpriced gee-whiz toys, they were powerful tools that would finally bring equality and level the playing field between black and white, rich and poor — once and for all.
"This is a civil rights issue," he told the Los Angeles Times. "My goal is to provide youth in poverty with tools heretofore only rich kids had. And I'd like to do that as quickly as possible."
Before taking a job in Los Angeles, John Deasy headed up the Gates Foundation's education division. He has earned a national reputation for being a bold reformer who is not afraid to push for education based on standardized testing or to fight wage increases for unionized teachers. Certainly, Deasy’s plan in LA was nothing if not bold.
The problem, though, was that it was hard to find anyone who agreed with it. There's no doubt that Apple and Pearson were happy with the deal. The two companies won competitive bids to supply respectively the hardware and software for LA’s “tablets for all” program. The first phase of the project was worth "only" $30 million. But when fully implemented, the companies stood to make a killing. With roughly 700,000 students and 45,000 teachers, LAUSD is the second-largest school district in the country. At $770 per iPad (not including keyboard), the deal would bring Apple an estimated $600 million. Meanwhile, the for-profit education mega-company Pearson would make up to $75 million a year just off its software licensing fees.
There were a lot of unanswered questions about the deal, but at least one thing was crystal clear: outfitting nearly a million people with top-of-the-line tablets was going to be insanely expensive. And that's why just about everyone that wasn't directly cashing in on LA's "tablets was all" scheme was baffled and outraged by it. Parents and teachers couldn’t understand how LAUSD's top brass could blow so much money on an expensive toy at time when the district was laying off teachers and cutting physical education, art and music programs. Pointy headed academics scratched their chins at the news because there is no scientific evidence that shows tablets help kids learn or boost academic performance in any way. And others wondered why LAUSD planned to pay for iPads using bond money that was approved by voters solely for use in upgrading physical school infrastructure, especially when schools routinely lack the funds to make critical repairs.
Even the Los Angeles Times, which is normally very sympathetic to Deasy's technocratic reform schemes, criticized the iPad deal. The paper noted with concern that Deasy not only owned Apple stock, but he had also appeared in an Apple promotional video boosting iPads as the best educational tools around. But in the end, the Times let Deasy off with a warning:
And Deasy appears in a promotional video for Apple in which he says tablets are 'phenomenally going to change the landscape of education.' "Deasy told me he received no money for being in the ad and that he has no role in choosing what companies the district does business with. Regardless, he'd be better off not serving as a pitchman for any product.Pando's own Carmel DeAmicis reported what happened after the deal was confirmed: The first students given their new iPads were totally psyched. They quickly figured out how to disable the firewall and content blocker software that was supposed to keep their iPad activities strictly on the educational up and up, and they did whatever kids do on the Internet these days: checked out YouTube videos and accessed porn. Their iPad "hack" led to a panicked recall of the devices, followed by promises to beef up security so that something like this never happens again. Never again...
But even with all this bad press surrounding LA's iPad scheme, there are a couple of important details about the bidding process that have received very little attention. For one: Remember that promotional Apple video? Well, if you watch it, you can see John Deasy doesn't just endorse iPads as great educational tools but claims that his district had already "decided to adopt iPad technology” – which is strange considering that video was first broadcast at an iBooks education conference in January 2012, more than a year before LAUSD started taking bids for its tablet project.
Likewise, at the announcement of the bidding process, officials referred to the tablet devices they planned to buy as "iPads" but later insisted that, of course, any tablet device might make the cut. As the LA Daily News reported, Apple representatives were in the audience for the announcement.
So was the procurement bidding process a sham? Had the decision been made to go with Apple from the beginning? The evidence would certainly point in that direction, but there's no smoking gun. What there is, though, is a whole load of fishiness at LAUSD, and not just around Deasy.
Take Jaimie Aquino, the deputy superintendent who oversaw the tablet procurement process. He was brought in by Deasy in 2011, coming to work at LAUSD directly from a company called America's Choice, a subsidiary of Pearson — an important detail that Aquino insists had nothing to do with the decision to choose their software. Coincidence or not, with licensing fees running up to $100 per student per year, Aquino's former employer stands to make $75 million annually on its LAUSD iPad contract.
It's important, too, to point out that Pearson is not just an educational publishing house. The company is a powerful political force and is at the forefront of the fight to privatize education and outsource and funnel public education funds to private contractors. As Diane Ravitch, the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education who's turned into one of the most eloquent critics of corporate education reform, puts it:
[Pearson] is a behemoth of for-profit goods and services to the education marketplace. It sells textbooks and test-preparation materials. Last year, it purchased Connections Academy, a for-profit online corporation; the vice president of Connections is active on the education committee of ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council, which lobbies for privatization of schools.And Aquino appears be very cozy and at home in the world of private foundations that push for corporate education reform. In fact, during his first term at LAUSD, he was one of about two dozen top level officials whose six figure salaries were paid not by the school district, but by outside money, including the Broad, Wasserman and Walton Foundations — the same billionaire-backed foundations that fund a pro-privatization movement whose goal is to funnel as much public education dollars as possible to private companies like Pearson and Apple.
[Illustration by Brad Jonas]