The pitch came from a smiling man in a jacket and tie, sitting at his desk and rhapsodizing about the wonders one product could bring to the sprawling Los Angeles Unified School District. The new item would lead to “huge leaps in what’s possible for students” and would “phenomenally . . . change the landscape of education.”
The speaker was Los Angeles schools Supt. John Deasy. The object of his admiration was the iPad. And the venue was a promotional video for Apple, later posted online by the computer giant.
The schools chief made the video more than a year before the district formally opened bidding that was supposed to give not just Apple, but a variety of computer and software companies an equal opportunity at a massive technology expansion in the nation’s second-largest school district.
Critics now look back on Deasy’s 2011 video testimonial as early evidence of what they believe was a myopic and headlong rush toward the iPad, one that ended last week with the superintendent suspending the troubled $1.3-billion program. The district originally had intended to supply an iPad, at a cost of $768 apiece, to every student, teacher and campus administrator in Los Angeles’ public schools.
Deasy once spoke as though tablets would be crucial in saving underprivileged students from an inferior, outdated education. With the huge purchase plan suspended, he has alternated between assertions of his acceptance of the slowdown as a chance to regroup and denunciations of others who he said had politicized the process.
As Deasy reached for the appropriate response, three school board members and the head of the teachers union called for an investigation into whether district administrators fairly conducted bidding for the unprecedented tech project.
And several board members said they should have asked tougher questions early on and were too quick to defer to their crusading superintendent and an ongoing mission they believe in — closing the technological gap between Los Angeles’ poor students and their wealthier peers elsewhere.
“The notion of the constantly ticking inequity clock” fueled the fervor of iPads for all, school board member Steve Zimmer said. “It’s my job to balance that urgency with scrutiny. And never have I failed more at that balance.”
While L.A. Unified remains committed to a “one-for-one” policy — a personal device for each student in the massive district — the furor over the iPad initiative already had officials considering laptops and other alternatives.
The district has estimated that it would cost about $500 million to obtain more than 600,000 of the tablets and accompanying software and an additional $800 million to install wireless Internet and other infrastructure at more than 1,000 schools and offices.
To date, the district has purchased about 109,000 of the devices, and carts to store and charge them, for about $61 million.
Deasy formally launched the effort in his 2012 back-to-school address to administrators, pledging to provide a tablet to every student.
Behind the scenes, in the months prior, he, and then-Deputy Supt. Jaime Aquino, had been in talks with Apple to provide a device and Pearson to supply the curriculum, according to emails released through the California Public Records Act. Deasy traveled twice to Apple’s Cupertino headquarters to meet with Apple officials, including chief executive Tim Cook. He also met with the chief executive of London-based Pearson in Southern California.
The draft of a five-year district technology plan prepared that year noted: “Discussions are already underway between Apple, Pearson and the district as one potential strategic partnership.” No other vendors were mentioned.
Late that year, Deasy approved “Schools for the Future,” a pilot program in which students on 13 campuses were to receive a computer. Deasy and Aquino decided that Apple would be the only vendor in this trial and the iPad the only device students received, according to the manager of the pilot program.
When Apple executives asked if he would make the promotional video, Deasy agreed. He described it as natural for educators to be asked their opinions about new products and wrote this week, in a memo to the school board, that he was “appreciative that a company like Apple” would solicit his opinion. He was not compensated for it, he said.
In that same memo, the superintendent recalled that he had been “very excited” to be told by Pearson’s chief executive that the company’s software package was “comprehensive, coherent [and] spanned all grades.”
In an earlier interview, school board member Bennett Kayser suggested that apparently close ties to one bidder could create “a charade that we’re looking objectively at all the possibilities.”
It was in November 2012, nearly a full year after the Apple video, that Deasy presented his technology plan to an independent panel that reviews how voter-approved school bonds are spent. He wanted the group’s endorsement because he planned to pay for the devices with school construction bonds.
But the panel members expressed concerns. Should the district use bonds paid back over 25 years to purchase devices with an expected life span of about three years? The panel did not come up with enough votes to approve the project.
The district’s communications office responded quickly with a formal statement: “Supt. John Deasy expressed profound disappointment that the ... committee today fell short of supporting his plan to provide iPads for all LAUSD students.”
The consultant for the bond committee, Thomas Rubin, said he pointed out that no device had been chosen — the bidding would not start for nearly four months — so district staff changed the word “iPad” to “electronic devices.”
Deasy has asserted that his influence has been exaggerated; that he stayed out of the bidding process, on the advice of counsel because he owned Apple stock. He insisted that he was agnostic on the eventual winner of the bidding.
L.A. Unified’s cost per iPad, with math and English lessons pre-installed, is one of the highest in America. District officials maintain that their deal was a bargain because of the extended warranty, the curriculum and other features.
By the time the bidders were winnowed down to three finalists, two of the three possible deals involved iPads and all three incorporated the Pearson curriculum. When the Board of Education approved an initial $30-million contract with Apple in June 2013, staff told board members they were getting the highest-rated product at the lowest price.
Much of the initial feedback from teachers was positive. They spoke about students being inspired to learn and try new things. Aquino said to one teacher that the iPads were like “an early Christmas gift for you and your kids.”
But these developments quickly became overshadowed by problems.
Days into the roll-out at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, nearly 300 students figured out how to delete security filters with two keystrokes so they could surf the Web without restraint. That raised concerns about access to inappropriate material.
Students at two other schools also figured out the trick — causing one campus to threaten suspension to a group of its highest-achieving students. The district’s solution, banning use of the iPads outside of school, sharply curtailed the ambitious potential of the devices, in the view of critics. Some teachers also were reporting that they could not connect to the Internet in their classrooms, or that service was slow or intermittent.
Despite the stumbles, Deasy last October labeled the iPad introduction “an astonishing success,” adding: “This is a civil rights issue. My goal is to provide youth in poverty with tools that heretofore only rich kids have had. And I’d like to do that as quickly as possible.”
Charles Kerchner, an emeritus education professor at Claremont Graduate University, said he worried about framing the complicated technology puzzle as a civil rights issue.
“Once you have played the civil rights card, which is sort of like playing the race card, it trumps whatever else is on the table,” he said. “It makes it impossible to have a nuanced conversation about what is best for students.”
Regardless, Deasy could not silence those with concerns. Even though the bond committee approved a scaled-back effort, it continued to raise issues. In addition, a school board technology committee, formed last year and headed by former teacher Monica Ratliff, also uncovered embarrassing shortcomings.
Two weeks after trumpeting the program’s success, Deasy acknowledged “a high degree of criticism from public, external, and internal audiences.” In mid-November 2013, the school board voted for a slower iPad rollout.
But schools still needed to be ready for new, state standardized tests in the spring. Asserting that more computers were required, Deasy’s team pressed repeatedly to buy more iPads. The compromise was to buy 47,000 additional iPads without the Pearson curriculum, at a lower price.
The school board also approved, with Deasy’s blessing, a shift away from using the iPad exclusively. Seven high school campuses are testing laptops. Curriculum from other companies also will be tried. Some of the laptops are considerably more expensive than the iPad — an issue of concern given that the school district has no firm plan, after the bonds are exhausted, to pay for the program into the future.
District leaders still stress the urgency for progress. Board member Monica Garcia in a recent interview described the potential effect of the project as “lifting urban America by modeling what can happen.”
The technology effort is moving uncertainly ahead. In late August, Ratliff completed her critical report and the newly released emails showed the close contacts between Deasy and his second-in-command with Apple and Pearson.
Days later, Deasy suspended the iPad purchases. Since then, he has tried to strike a balance — suggesting he is open to lessons learned and not fixated on a single product, while sharply rejecting any suggestion that he or his staff favored one bidder or did anything improper.
In his memo to the board Tuesday, he lashed out at the “insinuations, innuendoes and misleading statements” he said helped derail the push to get every child a computer. “It is time,” he said, “to put the learning of students first.”