The LAUSD Needs An Operating System Upgrade, Not iPads

Why the district’s program to furnish every student with a high-end tablet is a case study in warped priorities


This afternoon, the LAUSD board was supposed to determine the fate of the district’s embattled $1 billion iPad buy—but that agenda item has been shelved in favor of discussing Superintendent John Deasy’s future with the district. While the well-sown rumors of Deasy’s intention to resign have postponed the iPad day of reckoning, few of Deasy’s initiatives shine a brighter light on his vision for the district than his vow to put a tablet in the hands of every student.

As an LAUSD parent, I can only view this vision through the prism of the play structure at Rockdale Elementary in Eagle Rock. When my son entered Rockdale two-and-a-half years ago as a first-grader, half of the play structure was covered in yellow hazard tape. The frog-jumping feature was off limits—one of the lily pads and the pole that went through it had toppled to the ground, the ring attaching them to an overhead beam having cracked off. Nighttime skateboarders who had jumped the school’s fence had made an ugly fissure in the bottom segment of a curved slide. When I went to Rockdale’s administration office to ask why the LAUSD hadn’t repaired the damage, I was told that the school had been submitting requests to the district’s Maintenance and Operations division (M&O) for more than two years, to no avail.

Curious, I contacted the playground equipment manufacturer to see how much those parts might cost. The ring for the frog jump feature turned out to be $7.26; the slide was $285. Voters had passed three multibillion-dollar bond measures that, among other things, were supposed to cover the repair of hazardous and broken play yard equipment at local schools. Even with shipping and tax, the replacement materials for the Rockdale structure came out to $435, but it was $435 the district apparently didn't have to spare— leaving 283 students to play around the damage for more than two years. (By means of comparison, the district has committed itself to pay at minimum $678 for one iPad.)

Together with another family, my wife and I bought the parts. Having donated the hardware, I thought that M&O personnel would then install them. I was wrong. Due to staffing cuts, I was informed, there would be no crews available for the foreseeable future. I contacted my school board member's office to complain about the situation, and also to see what could be done about an active gas leak at nearby Monte Vista Elementary, which I had recently heard about. Weeks had gone by since the leak was detected. It had been cordoned off, but M&O hadn’t gotten around to repairing it yet.

Apparently I applied enough pressure, because the next day, an LAUSD repair team came out and fixed Rockdale's play structure with the parent-bought parts. A supervisor from M&O emailed me to make sure I was satisfied with the work. He also informed me that there had been a series of gas leaks at Monte Vista Elementary, which was built in the 1940s, and that they had been repaired on “a case-by-case basis.” The LAUSD's response to the latest leak was to cap off the deteriorating line, thereby cutting off heat to several classrooms. Replacement of the school's entire gas line system was supposed to take place this past summer, but the work wasn't done. As the weather turns colder, many Monte Vista students are going to have to bundle up if they want to stay warm in class.

One of the most common causes of fires after an earthquake is the rupture of old and corroded gas lines. Addressing earthquake hazards was one of the selling points of those three school bond measures, all of which included the words “Safe Healthy Neighborhood Schools Measure” in their titles. The official text of the initiatives, which stretched on for dozens of pages, devoted a couple of clauses to computers and network upgrades. And yet here, years after the bond measures passed, Monte Vista Elementary's gas lines, which had failed repeatedly as a matter of course, hadn't been replaced in their entirety, while the school district is poised to run up $1 billion in debt to purchase iPads.

To what end? While there may be merit to Superintendent John Deasy’s argument for closing the digital divide that keeps the district’s poorest students at a competitive disadvantage, the massive iPad investment does little to close it.

Furnishing every student with an iPad presumes that digital disenfranchisement is mostly a matter of hardware and software. That may have been true a decade ago, but as prices for tablets have plummeted to as little as $100—not iPads of course, but offerings from Apple's competitors—a high-speed Internet connection has become the main barrier. Although the original iPad plan allowed students to take their devices home with them, many of the district’s poorest students are as likely to remain as disconnected as before because they are children of undocumented immigrants—how easy is it for them to pass a routine credit check for Internet service while lacking proof of taxable income? There are some Internet providers that will forgo a credit check, but these tend to gouge customers, charging several times more than what a middle class family pays for AT&T or Verizon broadband.

The district has touted the three-year warranty Apple has granted for the iPads. (This extended warranty, we are told, figures into a purchase price for the LAUSD iPad that’s a few hundred dollars above retail. It's hard to understand how Apple, given exclusive rights to cultivate brand loyalty by turning an entire generation of LAUSD elementary students into a captive audience, wouldn’t provide the product for next to nothing.) Even if Apple’s operating system updates don’t render the equipment obsolete after three years, the district is bound to hemorrhage iPads by the thousands through subsequent theft, damage, and loss.

To detractors who ask how the LAUSD can possibly be pouring so much money into Apple product when arts, music, physical education, and other enrichment programs have been decimated, the inevitable answer is that the bond measures restricted funds to new construction and capital improvements. It might be an interpretive stretch to classify an iPad loaded with GarageBand as a capital improvement, but there’s no way an ongoing instructional expense like violin or flute instruction can possibly qualify. Nevertheless, if the district is going to make good on its pledge to protect every student's absolute right to an iPad, it's going to have to purchase untold thousands more in perpetuity. In that case, the iPad program too becomes the kind of ongoing expense the bond measures prohibit.

Unfortunately, repairing hazards like broken play structures and corroded gas lines, or replacing trailers that pock so many LAUSD schools with new classrooms, doesn’t carry the kind of cachet than iPads bring—or at least, brought 15 minutes ago, before the fast-paced digital economy came out with something even newer and exciting. Meanwhile, the concrete staircase at Rockdale has begun to crumble. Please resist the impulse to yawn.

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  • Rene Diedrich

    This is the most compelling and thoughtful thing I have read on LAUSD in some time, and it could not have been more welcome than it is now. As all of Deasy’s high powered pals rally to his defense and a crooked united way ushers the homeless to pass Deasy daisies out in front of the Beaudry building parents and teachers have to work. The newspapers are so biased it makes me quake with fury, but here is a voice of reason that I hope invites more like it to rise above the chaos and confusion and be heard by the people who matter.
    Thank you, thank you so much.

  • Rene Diedrich

    This is the most compelling and thoughtful thing I have read on LAUSD in some time, and it could not have been more welcome than it is now. As all of Deasy’s high powered pals rally to his defense and a crooked united way ushers the homeless to pass Deasy daisies out in front of the Beaudry building parents and teachers have to work. The newspapers are so biased it makes me quake with fury, but here is a voice of reason that I hope invites more like it to rise above the chaos and confusion and be heard by the people who matter.
    Thank you, thank you so much.

  • Kim Kaufman

    Thank you for this article. The problems with the iPad are even worse than what you’ve written. The district will be paying $770 each. Only when they purchase 520,000 will they get a discount – bringing it down to the $678 number. Complete incompetence, willful business malpractice – or both? Then there’s the touted Pearson software that’s a subcontractor of Apple. So Apple essentially is managing the curriculum – not educators or LAUSD. And it will not be ready until the end of Phase III – when all the iPads are purchased. So we’re paying full price for these things with the software arriving halfway through the 3 year warranty. And, no, LAUSD has no plan for how to fund this after 3 years. Oh, and textbooks will still need to be purchased because the Pearson “curriculum” is not accredited by the state of California. Words fail at the failure of us to be able to overcome the 1% and its money – which only tries to defund public education more so they can get more of the 1%. I was down at the board meeting today and I am stunned and depressed they renewed that crooked bully’s contract with a “favorable” review. At least that’s what the press is saying now. Maybe more will be revealed that gives me some hope for improvement.

  • George Buzzetti

    Very good article. I would like to see what he would write from his perspective if he saw the documents and data I have on this financial “Weapon of Mass Destruction.” As the super billionaire Warren Buffet, and friend of Bill Gates, has stated. They illegally ran every part of the day from 6:15 on. I have the only video of everything outside and inside of the boardroom during the discussion before closed session and when they announced, illegally by the way, the decision, but, without announcing the vote. Illegal, looked up the laws and have years of experience with the twisted way they tweak to make it look OK to the basically, bought and sold board.

    It really looks like this, I think, I am not saying I am right, just that I was there and they really went after me personally because I have in writing from Board Secretary Jefferson Crain that anytime I want to hook up my computer, you know like the liars they always bring in, to the TV screen for broadcast. Two hours later there is no more iPad meeting. Today, they had an idea of what I might do as I have made sure that certain people saw, only for an instant, certain highlighted areas to show everyone lying about what they are in public stating, like, “I don’t know, or I don’t remember, or I’ll find out, or what is the percentage of charter school students to the district population, I don’t know. Well, is is 650,000/85,000=15%, Duh!!!

    When I raised a big stink just before they went into closed session about not one of those people they let speak was in line when me and a friend were there at 6:15 A.M. Like me or not I was there and only 12 of them beat us and we did not have a problem with that as they go there first as it is and therefore should be for all, no excuses. If you are so disabled call ahead and they might make accomodations, especially if you know a board member. Fair for one, fair for all, isn’t that it?

  • Mark Elliot

    Thanks for your eloquent chronicle of LAUSD mismanagement. Upon hearing about the iPad program, I could hardly marshal your sound reasoning; instead I plumbed the depth of my cynicism. And when it comes to LAUSD management, it it pretty much bottomless.

    Especially when I recalled a news article a couple of years ago about Apple’s lobbying program to persuade educators to buy the hardware. Not those who use the equipment in the class, mind you, the teachers, but those who purchase it.

    The $1 billion LAUSD iPad program shows how successful Apple has been. For how else could you imagine that district management, so clearly a poor performer already, and chronically short of education dollars (now saddled by so much more debt), could give the OK on it?

    If LAUSD is already believed by a probable majority of the voters to simply grab at the next (and next) ballot tax without showing results, how can diverting precious education dollars to hardware in a $1 billion program not justify the cynicism? Time for Deasy to go, at least.

  • Cee

    This article pretty much sums up my own view as well, as a fellow LAUSD parent of three children. This fall, it took nearly four weeks for my teen daughter to get her schedule rearranged. This was only after an in-person visit by me, three trips to the office for her, and a lengthy Saturday phone call with a counselor who had worked massive overtime. This difficulty (experienced by many others as well) was caused in part by (1) not having enough counselors for the number of kids (the ratio is about 1 to 600 kids) and (2) the district reconciliation date falling after the drop-add deadline. As to the latter, her counselor explained as we pored through class rosters on an ancient computer (and was that a dot matrix printer in the back???) – the classes are “full” and have no wait list option in the system. But many of the names filling up slots are kids who are not at the school. Maybe they did an intra-district transfer, but didn’t realize they had to “check out” of their first school. Maybe they moved out of district, or out of state, and also didn’t check out. In any event, the school staff has to call and make contact to find out the situation. Until then, the names are clogging the system.

    I watched my daughter’s counselor struggling to find a schedule solution for her in the depths of the computer, and all I could think about was this iPad mess. Why spend money on iPads that WILL get lost, broken, stolen, and sold on eBay when the district clearly needs better digital infrastructure for its teachers and administrative staff first and foremost? Seriously — and especially with budget cuts, why not create an online system for people to register their kids and do the necessary check-ins and check-outs? That would save a lot of manpower, and I’m sure many other parents are pretty sick of filling out the same stack of forms year after year, which someone at the school then manually inputs. Many parents are happy and willing to do the work FOR you, LAUSD, just to stoke efficiency and take a load off the school staff members who have to pick up the slack after staff cuts.

    I assume that our community colleges have had more complex online student registration systems in place for many years, so there’s a working template in place to create these solutions.

    Sadly, it seems clear that like most of L.A.’s government institutions, LAUSD cannot and will not adopt commonsense measures. The article’s author hit upon the only real solution: We have to do things ourselves, by seeing these small problems and then taking the initiative to fix them. And if the agency charged with handling the problem balks and impedes the repair, we should raise a serious ruckus: They didn’t do their job, and they’re actually blocking someone else from doing it for them. We need to be squeaky wheels and shame the salaried folks who can’t fix gas leaks at elementary schools, because that is just ridiculous. (Don’t y’all have lawyers at LAUSD? Isn’t anyone concerned about liability over there? Oh, right, the taxpayers will foot the settlement bill if any kids are injured, so you’re covered. Phew.)

    Most of all, we as voters need to stop approving any and all budget hikes, bond measures, etc., etc., ad naseum — until we start seeing that money actually go to the projects as promised. Vote NO on everything. This is not a political position, it’s a practical one. We cannot approve these slush funds any longer, because they are not helping our kids. How can our city/county/state be broke when revenue just pours in? The only logical answer is that we’re not broke, the money is just getting wasted and/or siphoned off. (Case in point, and I’m typing this on an Apple, but another thing to consider is that the $1 billion in taxpayer money spent on iPads will give about $0 rebate in state tax revenue, because Apple’s savvy enough (i.e., has enough lawyers and accountants) to pay very, very minimal tax. So – poof! – there goes a lot of taxpayer money with no return to our city economy, no retained capital value for LAUSD, no income tax value to the state.) Only when the money stops flowing will any internal change occur.

    We taxpayers need to de-fund government agencies that don’t do their jobs, then rebuild our communities on a micro scale, helping schools and small businesses. The article gives a perfect example: Buy playground parts, and/or donate to your school’s “Friends of” organization, because those are made up of neighbors working to actively improve our children’s educational experiences.