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A Cautionary Tale for Any Government IT Project: L.A.'s Failed iPad Program

How did Los Angeles spend more than $1 billion to buy an iPad for every student and instead end up losing its leader and being investigated by the FBI and SEC?

Two years ago, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) tried an interesting new experiment: give every student a tablet computer equipped with a digital curriculum. It was a bold move that was supposed to push Los Angeles public schools into the 21st century. It turned out to be a disaster.

The idea was certainly huge, requiring the purchase of 650,000 Apple iPads, networking gear and educational software from Pearson -- all at a cost of nearly $1.3 billion. L.A. Schools Superintendent John Deasy, who launched the program in 2013, also saw it as a way to help the city’s low-income students. Until Deasy’s announcement, students had limited access to digital education tools at computer labs, which couldn’t accommodate all students at the same time.

Today, LAUSD is exploring possible litigation against Apple and Pearson, the world’s largest education publishing company, to recoup millions of dollars; a criminal grand jury is investigating possible ethics violations by district officials; the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Securities and Exchange Commission have launched their own inquiries into possible wrong-doing; and Deasy resigned. 

So what went wrong? To put it simply: a complete breakdown in the planning and execution of the initiative. The Los Angeles Times labeled the mega-technology project “ill-conceived and half-baked.”

In fall 2012, Deasy announced to school administrators his plan to give a tablet computer to every student. Convinced the highly popular technology was going to be the future of education and that low-income students would struggle academically if he didn’t move quickly, Deasy gave LAUSD only a few months to generate a plan before putting the initiative out to bid in 2013, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Education.

In June 2013, the Board of Education approved a contract with Apple and Pearson worth $500 million and set aside another $800 million to improve Internet access at schools. The entire purchase was funded by construction bonds, which are typically used to build and repair schools.

LAUSD bought 43,261 iPads loaded with a curriculum, which the school district selected from Pearson based only on samples of a math and English program available at the time. Problems surfaced immediately during the rollout at 47 schools in fall 2013. 

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Internet connectivity was spotty at some schools, partly because the district’s facilities chief was not included in the planning process for upgrading school networks to carry the heavy data demands of so many devices connecting to the Internet. Teachers were ill-trained on how to use the iPads and curriculum, and faculty never widely embraced the tablet, according to the Department of Education report. And many students learned how to bypass the security features and just used the iPads to surf the Internet.

With problems occurring almost daily with either the technology or the curriculum, Deasy slowed down the rollout. But criticism of the initiative from teachers, administrators and the local media kept mounting, and under pressure, Deasy resigned in October 2014. In December, LAUSD officially ended the initiative and canceled the Apple contract -- though schools and students continue to use the existing iPads. 

In addition to poor planning, the Department of Education's review of the initiative found LAUSD was too “heavily dependent on a single commercial product for providing digital learning resources.” While the district followed state guidelines for purchasing hardware that aligned with Common Core standards, a report released in August 2014 by the LAUSD board showed that the district had added detailed specifications regarding screen size and touchscreen functionality that heavily favored Apple and essentially excluded other technology options.


Students using a Google Chromebook, which can cost as little as $200. LAUSD, however, paid $768 for each iPad. (MCT/Los Angeles Times/Bob Chamberlin)

Media reports also detailed how bid requirements seemed to track with curriculum specifications suggested by Pearson in private email exchanges before the bidding process opened. The FBI has since launched an investigation into questions about whether Apple and Pearson enjoyed an advantage in the bidding process. 

Beyond the issue of whether or not Apple and Pearson had an inside track in winning the bid, LAUSD has been faulted for choosing one rather expensive device when less expensive choices were available. Devices with keyboards might have been a better option, for instance, since older students could have used them to write papers. Google’s Chromebook, for example, is a laptop that can cost as little as $200, while LAUSD paid $768 apiece for its iPads, including the software, according to the Times

The SEC in April also launched an inquiry into whether L.A. school officials complied with legal guidelines in the use of bond funds to finance the iPad deal. Using construction bonds to purchase Internet infrastructure is common, but the LAUSD also used money from the bonds to purchase the iPads, which break down after a few years. Some critics of the plan have said LAUSD should have set aside a sum from its operating budget to purchase the tablets.

Meanwhile, LAUSD took action of its own in April, announcing it would seek to recoup millions of dollars from Apple because it was “dissatisfied with their product.” The district’s demands for a refund stem from materials that didn't adapt well for students who weren't proficient in English and a lack of software tools to analyze how well the curriculum functions.

Fervor and fury over LA schools' iPads
Avery Sheppard explores the possibilities with his new LAUSD provided iPad on Aug. 27, 2014 in Los Angeles. (Bob Chamberlin/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
Bob Chamberlin/MCT

Teachers were ill-trained on how to use the iPads, according to the Department of Education. (MCT/Los Angeles Times/Bob Chamberlin)

Government technology projects often fail because policymakers take too long to deploy them, so they miss deadlines and end up with out-of-date technology. But as LAUSD’s fiasco showed, moving quickly can be just as disastrous. Without proper planning, a technology project of this size and scope is bound to fail. 

Another important lesson from this story is how a district’s reliance on one type of technology can end up limiting the value of that investment. Students of different ages have different needs and no one device is necessary or sufficient to solve all education problems. 

Computers are nothing more than tools that can help educate students when they are used as part of a well-planned curriculum. Unfortunately, that point was lost when Los Angeles let the glamour of a new and popular product cloud its judgement. 

Tod is the editor of Governing . Previously, he was the senior editor at Government Technology and the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for IT executives in the public sector, and is the author of several books on information management.
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