Deasy’s iPads: Maybe The Worst Decision In California Public Education History

A cool toy and a massive boondoggle (Wikimedia Commons)

The Los Angeles Unified School District’s $500 million decision to issue iPads to every student has gone according to logic, not plan. As the L.A. Times reports:

“Nearby, Eliazith Lorenzo, a senior at a different school on the same campus, had his iPad taken back only days after receiving it. He’d used it a little in class but said he’d mostly played a soccer game on it at home.

The idea is so bad I’m actually hoping we learn of a giant scandal where it turns out Apple was paying some of the key decision makers under the table because corruption would at least be a rational explanation. The gross incompetence that would have to be behind a decision to take funds raised from a bond measure funding school construction and repairs and buy iPads would be more painful to accept.

Socrates taught Plato under a tree. Einstein hammered out the theory of relativity on a chalkboard. Technology helps (using Google rather than a card catalog undoubtedly makes research more efficient), but you don’t need an iPad to use it. You need literacy and math. Teachers do that.

A current L.A. Unified high school teacher told me he’s been allocated a total of $100 to stock his classroom with supplies for the entire year. He also said the wireless internet at most schools is inadequate for so many iPads operating simultaneously because of bandwidth and interference issues.

Although some of the money in this iPlan has been allocated for networking improvements, it would seem to make more sense to lay all the groundwork first before introducing a wave of consumer products with a relatively short lifespan when the environment in which they would be used may not be ready for them.

L.A. Unified Superintendent John Deasy called the iPad program “a civil rights issue,” saying his aim was “to provide youth in poverty with tools that heretofore only rich kids have had.” Other, more important tools that rich kids tend to have: a low student-teacher ratio, ample pens and paper in their classrooms and adult role models who have gone to college.

There are few single indicators of a failed idea more revealing than a white man defending it by playing the race card. To his credit, Deasy will be taking questions about the program on live TV Thursday, but based on his previous comments, I wouldn’t expect much more than platitudes and defiance. What he should do is apologize to the teachers and voters he’s almost mocking with his new toys.

L.A. Unified has become the down-on-his-luck uncle who lost a job and asked for a loan to fix his leaky roof, then shows up with a new sports car parked in front of the same leaky garage.

The district could have taken those school construction and repair funds to do actual construction and repairs, making teachers’ working conditions more pleasant. Now, not only do they have to sit in the same crumbling classrooms, but they have the added stress of monitoring teenagers handling expensive electronic devices as cavalierly as teenagers do.

It’s a huge blow to their morale. If teachers keep hearing that there’s no money to pay their salaries or provide basic supplies, but the district can find a way to buy toys, such contempt from management is going to turn many capable and ambitious people who want to teach away from the profession. A similar situation is currently playing out in journalism, where on-the-ground reporting has become a job for people with rich families or a desire to live like a survivalist, while Fox News talking heads earn seven-figure paydays. None of this leads toward a smarter future America.

L.A. Unified is paying an above-retail $678 per iPad, with each one coming pre-loaded with educational applications (sweet deal for that software developer). Read: no bulk discount despite an order of 640,000. No chief financial officer anywhere in the world would sign off on such a deal unless he was handed getting cash money in a manila envelope in the parking garage.

Assuming that the district isn’t going to do this one time for a lucky class of students and retire the program when this current batch of tablets sputter out, L.A. Unified has basically boxed itself into having to pay this ridiculous amount of money every few years just to maintain the program. At least people who blow their money on gambling and hookers don’t lock themselves into long-term financial obligations.

Also, it’s not like L.A. Unified has such a great track record managing its inventory in other areas. At least 2,600 broken violins, clarinets and other instruments sit in a downtown warehouse, with neither the money nor sufficient amount of technicians to fix them. Teachers in South L.A. can’t exactly pop over to the neighborhood Apple store to repair and maintain the devices in their classrooms. They’ll have to rely on the district to handle the repairs. Why would things be any better for the tablets tomorrow than they are for the saxophones today?

Even if the iPads were free or substantially discounted, it’s not clear how much more effective they’d be in actually educating students, and not just providing the appearance of a modern classroom for glossy PR purposes. The one obvious advantage in having childhood computer access is learning how to code, a path trod by technology CEOs from A to Zuckerberg, and not something optimally done on an iPad anyway. Older students can’t write longer essays on them because the district didn’t budget an additional $38 million for keyboards and the thought of typing even a one-pager on a touch screen makes my head hurt.

Eliazith Lorenzo has nothing to apologize for. We all like to play games on our iPads. It would be nice if L.A. Unified didn’t do the same with our money.

While not what he intended, Deasy’s plan may in the end provide some actual education: a case study of how not to manage a budget.