DIY Investigative Journalism: How Bloggers Became Watchdogs in the LAUSD iPad Boondoggle

2 years ago

“If you don’t like the news,” an old saying goes, “make your own.”

Doubly so when you’re an education news blogger and parent of a school-aged child.

In 2010, my hometown newspaper the Los Angeles Times released a database ranking teachers that relied on student standardized test scores. Never mind that anyone with a whit of number sense or who has ever taken a standardized test knows that at most, these tests give a rear view mirror glimpse of how the student does, and they have no useful information to give regarding teacher “effectiveness.” The American Statistical Association backs me up on this view of “value-added measurement”.

Image Credit: Brad Flickinger, Flickr

It seemed like the Los Angeles Times had lost all sense of healthy skepticism. Powerful Angelenos like philanthropist Eli Broad who wants to run schools like a business would float the most ridiculous claims (like “value-added”) and make pronouncements about what students need or what parents want, and there would often be a huge gap between what actual students needed or what actual parents said they wanted (and loudly, too).

For example, Los Angeles is a tremendous arts town. (In case you hadn’t heard, we have some singers. And dancers. And actorly/writerly types. Oh and that movie industry thing. Plus the recording industry.) Many parents in Los Angeles work in the arts and entertainment industry, they’re familiar with the creative benefits it brings to all kids, and not surprisingly they keep insisting that their kids be taught arts in the public schools.  In July of 2013, the Los Angeles School Board made a specific request of Superintendent John Deasy: bring us a fully fleshed out arts integration plan with budget. One year lateran anemic arts budget landed on the desks of LAUSD School Board members to no fanfare whatsoever and promptly limped into a corner. But the Superintendent rushed his ill-conceived iPad plan forward in 2013-2014 and now everyone’s paying. Literally.

Deasy had set aside $1 billion from a school construction bond fund to pay for iPads for every child in the 640,000-student district — tablets that are cute but easily become outdated in three to five years. That the money was intended by voters to pay for building repairs was not lost on unhappy voters, who felt they’d been slipped a bait-and-switch. Paying for overpriced iPads for every child in the district using 25-year bond funds would be like using a high-interest credit card to buy a can of soup, and then paying it back over 25 years, making it the most expensive short-shelf-life can of soup on record.

This is where bloggers can work side by side with corporate media. And where if you're a parent or care about children in a given school district, you might have the extra motivation to do so.

To light a fire of inquisitiveness and healthy skepticism under the Los Angeles Times’ fanny, K-12 News Network obtained through a public records request the bids for all the vendors who wanted to supply LAUSD with educational technology. There were probably eight to 10 vendors in all. In the fall of 2013, we circulated the bid proposals to all the area press: muckraking bloggers, the local public radio station, and big corporate media outlets. Lo and behold, the news reporting got lots better. A merry little band of parent and community activists who all along had issues with regard to the misplaced priorities of LAUSD (money for iPads, none for repairs; money for an online class scheduling system, none for arts, etc) kept digging. We dug into the contract LAUSD ultimately signed with Apple Computers and we also combed the vendor proposals. When a LAUSD school board subcommittee released a report on the iPads acquired for the Common Core Technology Project, we put it online for people to comment on.  In blog posts, we highlighted unprofessional irregularities, such as the lack of a family device use agreement in case of theft, loss, or breakage. What?? How is that not the first thing in place?

Now, where the pro journos really went to town is with their own public records request. It’s a year later, and through some very careful scouring of the emails between Superintendent John Deasy and Apple executives, new information is coming to light. It’s made our summer 2013 Request For Bids relevant again, so this time we released them to the public in annotatable form.

A summary post the local NPR affiliate did for national public radio itemizes the District's big no-nos:

  • Jaime Aquino, the district's former head of curriculum, expressed reservations about the cost, infrastructure readiness and timing of the iPad/Pearson plan.
  • Deasy personally pitched Apple on the Pearson partnership.
  • Pearson's charitable foundation subsidized a training session for 50 LAUSD employees at a poolside resort and gave participants free iPads.
  • Pearson's sales representative, Judy Codding, argued against a request for proposals, the key part of a competitive bidding process: "I don't know why there would have to be an RFP."

And this new information is coinciding with the meltdown of class scheduling software (MiSiS) that’s shutting 45,000 students in LAUSD out of classes when they’re simply trying to start school on the right foot and graduate or go to college.

These are bad, expensive ed tech deals. One $1 billion dollar bad deal is unforgiveable. A second bad deal that could hurt kids and perhaps understate the student headcount for Average Daily Attendance money from the California budget, thus defunding LAUSD based on preventable clerical errors, is totally unacceptable incompetence. We’re continuing to pursue these stories and on our K12NN civic engagement platform we’re asking for community pressure to ensure that an independent, external watchdog entity investigates and audits LAUSD to show the public why and how the iPad deal and the MiSiS meltdown happened to prevent this mess from ever happening again.

But take this lesson from the second largest school district in the nation: bloggers and advocates can move the needle.

8 Ways Bloggers and Advocates Can Move the Needle

  • Organize a group of muckraking community and parent activists.
  • Develop relationships with the press: mainstream, radio, print, tv, alt weeklies, public radio.
  • Find or create a blogging home. Blog the heck out of what you think needs improving or changing. Know your First Amendment rights and also the limits to free speech. (At K12NN we have a risk management plan in place – i.e., we carry Errors and Omissions insurance just like other media outlets.)
  • Do public records requests. You are the public. You are absolutely entitled to get public records about budgets, strategic plans, school board meetings (with some shields for sensitive personnel or legal matters), and so on.
  • Cultivate whistle-blowers. If you are the whistle-blower, guard your anonymity and only work with those who’ll do the same.
  • Use your Deep Googling abilities – research, dig, use Google Alerts to stay on top of bills and other developments that might change the picture.
  • Reach out to your superintendent, attend school board meetings. Make public comment.
  • Make sure your local elected representatives are in the loop.

New twists and turns continue to change the storyline every day. But the basic idea is that watchdog bloggers partnered with traditional media outlets can and should play a role in making sure public funds for public schools are spent wisely and appropriately. This is how you can be part of the solution — if anything, it's in your best interest to do so.

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