LA School District’s iPad Farce Reaches Nadir As Officials Demand Refunds From Apple, Answer Questions From The SEC

The Los Angeles school district’s headfirst leap into technological waters has turned into the ultimate cautionary tale. Rather than ensure everything was up to spec, the district chose to distribute 90,000 iPads bundled with Pearson software and hand them over to its students… who cracked the minimal built-in protections within a week and turned the devices into something they wanted to use, rather than something they had to use.

Why the full-on dive? Well, it appears at least part of it may have been motivated by low-level corruption — the sort of thing you’d expect to be present in a $500 million project, one that ballooned to $1.3 billion, even as most students went without new iPads or laptops. (Only 91,000 of the 650,000 iPads had been purchased by the point the program was shut down.)

Now, the district is facing an inquiry by the SEC — to go with its ongoing investigation by the FBI for some pre-contractual irregularities (i.e., wining and dining with eventual contract winners Apple and Pearson) by the then-superintendent overseeing the program.

The federal Securities and Exchange Commission recently opened an informal inquiry into whether Los Angeles school officials complied with legal guidelines in the use of bond funds for the now-abandoned $1.3-billion iPads-for-all project.

In particular, the agency was concerned with whether the L.A. Unified School District properly disclosed to investors and others how the bonds would be used, according to documents provided to The Times.

Now that the program is effectively dead and under intense scrutiny, the ineptness of the district’s rollout is under discussion. The district is claiming this debacle really isn’t its fault.

The Los Angeles Unified School District is seeking to recoup millions of dollars from technology giant Apple over a problem-plagued curriculum that was provided with iPads intended to be given to every student, teacher and administrator.

Apple may be in the headline and leading paragraph, but district officials seem more irritated with software provider Pearson. Under the terms of the agreement, Pearson was allowed to half-ass its way through the first year, providing only “partial curriculum.” It was expected to be at least as prepared as the students by the beginning of the following school year. It wasn’t, despite receiving $200 per iPad in licensing fees.

“Only two schools of 69 in the Instructional Technology Initiative … use Pearson regularly,” according to an internal March report from project director Bernadette Lucas. “Any given class typically experiences one problem or more daily. Teachers report that the students enjoy the interactive content — when it’s available. When it’s not, teachers and students try to roll with the interruptions to teaching and learning as best they can.”

The remaining schools, she said, with more than 35,000 students, “have given up on attempting regular use of the app.”

Pearson, despite having received millions of dollars (and possibly some preferential treatment during the bidding process), is flunking. It hasn’t created bilingual versions of its software — something of a necessity in Los Angeles. The analytic software it promised to the district (as part of the justification for the software premiums) has yet to arrive. It hasn’t even provided online versions of periodic achievement tests.

How much Apple and other device makers are really at fault is up for debate. As the device makers, they only needed to provide a device and operating system. The rest seems to be on Pearson, which at this point, should really be doing better at providing functional educational software. The LA school district may have erred in its decision to roll this out before ensuring everything worked properly, but the future’s not just going to sit around waiting for giants like Pearson to get their end of the equation in order. The field is ripe for disruption. Or, it would be… if entrenched interests (government entities) weren’t so set on bedding down with equally entrenched interests (textbook publishers).

But what comes across here is something more than just ensuring government contractors live up to the terms of their agreements. Above the better-late-than-never attempt at fiscal responsibility (always save your receipts!), you can hear the faint whinging noise of the district arguing that it shouldn’t be responsible for its own botched rollout, financial impropriety or inability to respond to problems with more agility. As much as I’d like to bash Pearson (and I really, really would), there’s definitely a hint of buck-passing in the air.

The district could have handled this better, but there was just too much money at stake. Hundreds of millions of dollars in expeditures can’t guarantee working tech, but it goes a long way towards ensuring a certain level of mismanagement. Large contracts tend to bring out the worst in people. Not only will there almost always be some level of impropriety, but there will also be a compulsion to do everything fast and hard so the public can see where its money’s being spent. Doing something, even if it’s clumsy and questionable, is almost always preferable to doing it the right way. The LA school district wanted to win the race to the future, but only managed to knock over every hurdle before collapsing several hundred iPads short of the finish line. And now it wants the same companies it allegedly allowed to seduce it into handing over more that $500 million to give some of it back.

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