STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Next we'll report of the problems with the largest school technology expansion in the country. The Los Angeles Unified School District plans to buy iPads for students and teachers. It's a giant school district, so that is 700,000 iPads. The tablets would include learning software from Pearson, which is the largest publishing company in the world.
But the superintendent of the school district now says he's putting the contract for that technology out for new bids. The decision comes after an investigation by member station KPCC. Emails between district officials and Pearson executives bring into question the fairness of the bidding process. Annie Gilbertson reports.
ANNIE GILBERTSON, BYLINE: Before we get to the emails, you should know lots of people in Los Angeles were thrilled when, last summer, officials announced every student would be getting an iPad, like these kids at Baldwin Hills Elementary School.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: Everybody here has an iPad.
UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: All right.
GILBERTSON: Superintendent John Deasy said then the technology would transform classrooms for LA's struggling students. But problems quickly surfaced. Just a few weeks after getting their iPads last fall, students Robert Sandoval and Rosary Sea at Diego Rivera High School, south of downtown LA, were frustrated.
ROBERT SANDOVAL: Well, the Wi-Fi seems to be shutting down.
ROSARY SEA: The images wouldn't come up and nothing.
GILBERTSON: The Wi-Fi at most of the district schools wasn't strong enough. And Pearson's software simply wasn't ready. The company Pearson sold LA school officials on digital lessons it was developing for the Common Core State Standards. But Pearson's Judy Codding said at the time that kind of task takes a while.
JUDY CODDING: Because, remember, the Common Core State Standards were relatively new.
GILBERTSON: And here's where the emails come in. Pearson began conversations with top LA school officials a year before the district opened the contract for bidding. Emails showed Deasy had lunch with then CEO of Pearson, Marjorie Scardino, and he was smitten. He wrote, needless to say we have been in furious and exciting conversations. Deasy said he would get back to Scardino within a week with a plan.
Emails showed Deasy then met with Apple and talked about partnering with Pearson. When his team finally opened the bid, what they asked for looked a lot like what Apple and Pearson had been selling, down to the technical support and teacher training. Apple and Pearson won the contract worth about half a billion. That was before the emails emerged. Now school board member Steve Zimmer is questioning whether the school district stifled competition.
STEVE ZIMMER: We're dealing with hundreds of millions dollars of taxpayer money. We have to make sure that this is something that is completely ethical and completely above board.
GILBERTSON: Superintendent John Deasy, who refused to be interviewed for the story, has said he did nothing improper. It's not uncommon to meet with companies ahead of a bid. Once the bid opened, Deasy said he followed the rules and cut off communication. Some of the superintendent's supporters on the school board are standing by his side, among them, Monica Garcia.
MONICA GARCIA: I am confident that the team put together what they believed was the best, and then we need to let them do their jobs.
GILBERTSON: Now that Deasy has crumpled up the contract, that job will involve starting over, deciding what tools are best for Los Angeles students and which tech companies should provide them, though the district already paid for 75,000 iPads, many with the Pearson software that it can't return. For NPR News, I'm Annie Gilbertson in Los Angeles.
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