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L.A. school district demands iPad refund from Apple

The Pearson curriculum on L.A. Unified's iPads never caught on and now district seeks refund

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.

To press its case, the Board of Education on Tuesday authorized its attorneys in a closed-door meeting to explore possible litigation against Apple and Pearson, the company that developed the curriculum as a subcontractor to Apple.

L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines “made the decision that he wanted to put them on notice, Pearson in particular, that he’s dissatisfied with their product,” said David Holmquist, general counsel for the nation’s second-largest school system. He said millions of dollars could be at stake.

In a letter sent Monday to Apple, Holmquist wrote that it “will not accept or compensate Apple for new deliveries of [Pearson] curriculum.” Nor does the district want to pay for further services related to the Pearson product.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment. Pearson defended its product.

The $1.3-billion iPad effort was a signature program under then-Supt. John Deasy. But it faltered almost immediately during the fall 2013 rollout of the devices. Questions later arose about whether Apple and Pearson enjoyed an advantage in the bidding process; an FBI criminal investigation is ongoing.

Deasy had said the technology effort was a civil rights imperative designed to provide low-income students with devices available to their wealthier peers. He resigned under pressure in October, largely because of problems with the iPad effort. He could not be reached for comment.

Amid eroding political support and rising costs, the district first slowed the effort, then abandoned the goal of providing a device to every student.

The contract with Apple was approved by the Board of Education in June 2013 as part of a deal expected to reach at least $500 million. Another $800 million was earmarked to improve Internet access at schools.

Under the contract, Pearson was to provide English and math curriculum. The district selected Pearson based only on samples of curriculum — nothing more was available.

L.A. Unified made the deal anyway; it wanted to bundle the curriculum and the device into a single price. A three-year license to use the curriculum added about $200 to the $768 cost of each iPad. The entire purchase then was financed through school construction bonds, which can be used to purchase computers.

L.A. Unified bought 43,261 iPads with the Pearson curriculum. The district purchased another 77,175 iPads under the contract without the Pearson curriculum to be used initially for state standardized tests.

Pearson could offer only a partial curriculum during the first year of the license, which was permitted under the agreement. Teachers and principals never widely embraced the product.

Nearly a year ago, L.A. Unified sent Apple a letter demanding that it address problems with the Pearson curriculum.

“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.”

Other problems emerged as well, according to that report. District specialists said the materials are not readily adaptable for students who are not proficient in English. And there are no online tests to help guide instruction; the only available assessments are on paper. Nor has Pearson provided data or tools that permit an analysis of how often the curriculum is used or how well it functions.

Making the materials “usable” has required “extraordinary, unsustainable, and un-scalable resources,” Lucas wrote.

In a response to the Times, Pearson spokeswoman Stacy Skelly said the company is “proud of our long history working with LAUSD and our significant investment in this groundbreaking initiative to transform instructional practices and raise expectations for all students.”

She said although there have been challenges in carrying out “a large-scale implementation of new technologies ... we stand by the quality of our performance.”

Although the threatened legal action applies to Apple and Pearson, the district also sent letters Tuesday to two other companies: Lenovo, a device maker, and Arey Jones, a computer distributor. These companies also have included the Pearson product on some devices purchased by L.A. Unified.

These letters also state the district’s goal of pursuing refunds.

KPCC was the first to report Wednesday on the letter from the school district to Apple.

“As you are aware, LAUSD is extremely dissatisfied with the work of Pearson,” according to Holmquist’s letter. “While Apple and Pearson promised a state-of-the-art technological solution ... they have yet to deliver it.”

In its letters, the district said it wants to meet this month to arrange “the dissociation from Pearson and recoup the costs of Pearson licenses that we paid for but have been unable to use.”

Board member Monica Ratliff, who chaired a technology committee that raised serious questions about the effort, said the district has been patient with Pearson but that time has ended.

“I believe that it is time for Pearson to either deliver on its promises immediately or provide us with a refund so that we can purchase curriculum that actually works for our students,” she said in a statement.

Officials have said they still want technology available as needed for classroom instruction and new state tests. And this week, the school board took a step to replace some of the online materials: It authorized the purchase of new math textbooks.

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume 

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATED

8:40 p.m.: This story has been updated throughout with new details, background information and comment from a Pearson representative.

This story was originally published at 2:16 p.m.

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