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iFail: Why John Deasy's Risky iPad Gambit Crashed and Burned at LAUSD

In a surprising reversal, L.A. Unified Superintendent John Deasy has abruptly halted the district's billion-dollar technology program, which aimed to put an iPad into the hands of every student and teacher by the end of, yes, this year.

It's a rare retreat for the headstrong superintendent intent on getting the tablets into classrooms as soon as humanly possible. But it comes after more than a year of negative news stories – everything from LAUSD students "hacking" devices to the incomplete iPAD-friendly software to an allegedly chummy bidding process in which Deasy gave Apple and Pearson, the software company, a leg up

"We have an opportunity to put a halt on the current contract, write a new contract, address those issues that are suboptimal,"  Deasy tells us. "We’re a tiny way into it. We've given them out to 47 schools. There are 1,019 [schools] to go."

Deasy's plan had gotten all sorts of bad press over its cost, over Apple's involvement and over the troubled initial roll-out to the schools. And during the weekend, the Los Angeles Times and KPCC published eyebrow-raising emails that were released to both news organizations in response to their public records requests.

The emails between Deasy, district officials, Apple and Pearson showed that Pearson, which sells the interactive software the kids are using on their tablets, was chummy with LAUSD's top dogs long before the district began officially soliciting bids.

The stories seemed to confirm the longtime rumor that Pearson and, to a lesser extent, Apple, were unfairly favored.

Critics say the specifications of the "request for proposals" – bureaucratic jargon for the wish-lists government agencies are required to publicly release, detailing how they plan to spend taxpayer money on a specific project – were tailor-made to help Apple and Pearson win their bids. 

Deasy says he "didn’t write the bid specifications" and "was not allowed to see the bid specifications" created by the district bureaucracy. Deasy had recused himself from the process, in part because at the time he owned a bit of Apple stock.

He is dismissive of the notion that he shouldn't have been chatting up the two firms long before bidding, saying, "I meet with vendors all the time, and of course I should. If people want to be vendors, they want to discuss what [you want]."

The district started small — for LAUSD — when it awarded a pilot project to Apple, but that immediately set off questions raised by the losing bidders (as well as Deasy's critics, like the school employee unions) about why the district hadn't set up parallel pilot programs to test other devices and software simultaneously.

Deasy seemed intent on embracing just one type of device, even though older students — high schoolers in particular — clearly needed keyboards to write their reports and papers. IPads don't automatically include keyboards, and that lack of foresight forced LAUSD to spend a large extra chunk of money on Bluetooth keyboards, driving up the contract costs.

And there were other troubles. As Deasy himself tells us, "There were firewall issues. People have criticized the content. Fine. ... Now we'll pause and correct those problems."

But initially, Deasy was anxious to get the devices out to kids as quickly as possible.

A Facebook group called "Repairs Not iPads" responded by highlighting the fact that many schools are in desperate need of physical repairs (the page has over 5,000 "likes"). They and others pointed out that the iPad money was being taken from school construction and modernization bonds that many critics think should be used only for physical improvements.

Last year, Los Angeles magazine writer-at-large Ed Leibowitz, who'd authored a rather glowing profile of John Deasy, wrote a new piece criticizing Deasy's iPad program:

Unfortunately, repairing hazards like broken play structures and corroded gas lines, or replacing trailers that pock so many LAUSD schools with new classrooms, doesn’t carry the kind of cachet than iPads bring—or at least, brought 15 minutes ago, before the fast-paced digital economy came out with something even newer and exciting. 

In June, school district leaders began backing off of their "all-iPad" stance, allowing several LAUSD high schools to choose among six laptops instead of Apple's tablet. That was a tacit acknowledgment that one-size-fits-all was not going to work.

That same month, the board voted to reappoint Stuart Magruder, an outspoken critic of the iPad plan, to the school bond fiscal oversight committee. 

Now, in the wake of the Deasy-Apple-Pearson emails, the district will open a new bidding process, soliciting offers from companies like Google and Microsoft for their tablet computers and laptops.

The schools that already have iPads and Pearson software will continue to use them – assuming they can overcome technical glitches. 

The goal of this technology program was always one part practical, one part idealistic.

The practical part is to give children some practice in the months leading up to California's big switch in testing, when some students, this spring, will begin taking their standardized tests on computers, not on paper. Loads of students won't do well if they don't know their way around a computer. 

The idealistic part is to narrow the very real digital divide that separates poor and working-class Los Angeles children from middle-class and rich kids.

"My responsibility is to lift kids out of poverty," says Deasy. "They have the right to technology."

A lingering question is how this will affect Deasy's already-tenuous relationship with the elected school board, which can fire him at any time. As Steve Lopez writes in today's L.A. Times:

It remains to be seen whether the superintendent, having lost a great deal of credibility, can survive the political fallout and learn enough from his blunders to lead the way more capably.

"I think that John Deasy lives by the sword and suffers by the sword of urgency," L.A. Unified board member Steve Zimmer said. "I wouldn't want him to not be urgent, and not be impatient, but sometimes there's a cost to that."