As questions arise over a $500M Apple deal, LA school district votes to destroy internal emails
California's largest school district just dealt a major blow to public transparency.
According to the Pasadena public radio station KPCC, the Los Angeles Unified school district (LAUSD) has voted to destroy all internal staff emails after one year. The reason for doing so, according to the board's new policy, is that, "Because the District relies on public funds, it is imperative for the District to minimize its costs and, therefore, dispose of information and Records in a timely manner."
That sounds reasonable on the surface, but consider the timing of the announcement: Less than three weeks ago, KPCC published emails revealing that LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy had met with representatives from Apple and the textbook company Pearson to discuss the purchase of iPads and educational software. These meetings occurred a year before public bidding opened up on the contract to supply technological resources to LA schools. Although Deasy claims the discussions were unrelated to the impending contract bid, Apple and Pearson went on to win the deal which is worth a record $500 million.
Following the release of the emails, Deasy cancelled the contract and vowed to reopen the bidding process.
The emails were made public by way of a California Public Records Act request, but thanks to the new policy the school district will no longer be required to – or, it seems, able to – produce internal emails like these because they are over a year old. Had the rule been in place a few weeks ago, KPCC could have been blocked from retrieving the emails and the Apple-Pearson deal would have likely stood unquestioned.
To steal a phrase from the policy itself, "the District relies on public funds." Therefore the board owes it to taxpayers to provide transparency, particularly when it comes to handing private enterprises half a billion dollars.
Furthermore, the public has a right to be skeptical of the school district's dealings with technology companies. LAUSD's iPad program has met with a host of problems, including higher-than-expected costs, insufficient WiFi, device theft, and easily circumvented firewalls allowing students to access everything from YouTube to YouPorn. School districts in Texas, Missouri, and North Carolina have also encountered problems with these "no-child-left-without-a-tablet" programs, like overheating chargers and unmet curriculum standards. Many have questioned the wisdom of using tablets at all in classrooms, like this eighth grader who explains perfectly why laptops, not tablets, are the most economically- and educationally-sound devices to give to students.
To ensure that school districts put the interests of students and taxpayers above those of corporate interests, they must offer transparency and ongoing accountability around these deals. Thanks to the now published emails, the Inspector General has reopened its investigation of LAUSD's handling of this technology procurement process. Maybe it will find that no wrongdoing had occurred. But with access to these public records now greatly hindered, the school district will find it easier in the future to negotiate with corporate interests behind closed doors, potentially making a mockery of democracy, the education system, and the taxpayers that foot the bill for the whole shebang.