School & District Management Opinion

Contracting Not an Easy Answer, as Los Angeles iPad Venture Shows

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — August 27, 2014 3 min read
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These are not Deasy days in Los Angeles. If you’re Superintendent John Deasy, this is not a headline you want: “L.A. Unified report faults iPad bidding.” And you really don’t want to see: “Deasy’s ties to iPad team are revealed.” In response to these disclosures, on Monday Deasy cancelled future purchases under the contract with Apple and Pearson.

In a damning lede, Los Angeles Times reporter Howard Blume wrote:

The groundbreaking effort to provide an iPad to every Los Angeles student, teacher and school administrator was beset by inadequate planning, a lack of transparency and a flawed bidding process, according to the draft of an internal school district report obtained by The Times. The bidding process—and the events leading up to it—were singled out for particular criticism. The report concludes that the district needlessly limited its options on price and product, and raises questions about whether the process was fair.

Much finger pointing will follow within the district, and editorialists will doubtless view with alarm. Grand juries will sniff. But there is an even bigger story here, one of the propriety and capacity of school districts to conduct large parts of their business through contract.

Much of the corporate reformer agenda for public education rests on using contracts to external providers as a way of providing schooling. Corporate reformers make contracting seem an easy answer to stultifying bureaucracy and a way to import needed knowledge and inventiveness. Charter schools and portfolio districts comprised of traditional public schools alongside of charters and hybrid forms of governance become a way of transforming public education from a traditional hierarchy to a network.

In Tools of Government, a book that has become a touchstone for policy scholars in the last decade, Lester Salamon makes the point that much of what we call government is already provided by contractors and other forms of indirect government. These “outsiders,” as they are called, have more than twice the budget of traditional federal agencies. Thus, Salamon argues, the ability to manage through contractual relationships becomes a central skill of public sector leaders.

As the iPad stories about LAUSD illustrate, contracting is anything but straightforward. What are called public-private partnerships become avenues of impropriety when money is involved.

In the book Between Public and Private, a study of portfolio management in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans, policy scholar Jeffrey Henig makes the point that contracting with outsiders is much easier when the desired service can be easily specified: so many widgets to be delivered, so many buildings to be cleaned.

But where public education needs outside help most is not in easily specified commodities or routine services; it’s in generating new ideas about teaching and learning and novel ways of changing that process.

But if you are a school district, the same people who have interesting ideas are often trying to sell you stuff. At what point does a conversation about interesting technology applications and cutting edge learning become soft soap? Thus, when then-Pearson Chief Executive Marjorie Scardino told Deasy in an email quoted in Blume’s story that, “My mind was racing all weekend, and I was so impressed by your intelligent and committed and brave hold on the moving parts of this opportunity. I really can’t wait to work with you,” is this intellectual ferment or slippery flattery?

The problem is that generative public-private relationships are essential to big city school districts. Over the first two-thirds of the last century schools followed the corporate model of vertical integration. Big districts designed their own curriculum, often selling it to smaller school systems. They often ran their own teacher education programs or did so with colleges and university programs they controlled. In the 1960s LAUSD had over 400 staff members creating lessons and curriculum. But through cutbacks and changes in business models LAUSD, like most urban districts, has been hollowed out and forced to outsource its intellectual core.

Buying pedagogy—the Pearson part of the contract—is not like buying fuel oil or insurance; it requires dealing with people who know more about new modes of teaching and learning than you do and a lot more about the technology of delivering them than you do. It’s not easy, but doing so is a basic skill of a contemporary school administrator. As Deasy remarked when he halted the iPad purchase program: “We will incorporate the lessons learned from the original procurement process.”

At the very least, the public should be wary when people pitch contracting and outsourcing as a sure bet response to the problems of traditional public administration.

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