LA Schools New Headache: FBI Seizes Documents in iPad Deal

The FBI paid an unscheduled visit to the Los Angeles Unified School District this week to sieze documents related to an iPad deal that went south. Agents left with 20 boxes filled with documents linked to the contract bidding process, Apple, and Pearson.

Apple's iPad deal with LA schools has turned into an FBI document seizure.Apple's iPad deal with LA schools has turned into an FBI document seizure

The documents the FBI took include "score sheets; complete notepads, notebooks and binders; reports; contracts; agreements; consent forms; files; notices; agenda; meetings notes and minutes; instructions; accounting records" and more, according to the LA Times.

The school district's plan to put iPads in the hands of students and teachers in 47 schools has been shrouded in controversy ever since it launched. There were questions about how the US$30 million program was implemented, and accusations that it was failing.

The contract was expected to ultimately cost the school district about $800 million for the iPads, increased staffing, improved Internet connections, and more.

Later, questions about how Apple was awarded the contract and Pearson scored a deal to provide educational content, led to then-superintendent John Deasy resigning. The school system decided to phase out its contract with Apple, and now has officially cancelled the deal.

Current superintendent Ramon Cortines announced the end of the deal with Apple the same day the FBI seized the documents. The timing, Mr, Cortines said, was purely coincidental.

"I think there have been too many innuendos, rumors, etc., and based on my reading of a great deal of material over Thanksgiving, I came to this conclusion," he said.

From an educational standpoint, bringing iPads into LA's schools was a failure because there was no real plan for how they would be used. From an administrative standpoint, the project was a failure because of the controversy it created thanks to the potentially unethical way in which school district administrators handled the approval process.

TMO's John Martellaro offered up his own insight into the situation back in July, saying,

Purchase authority is exercised by those who have the least technical expertise. Those who have the expertise have no say in the process. Piecemeal test projects fail to generate the desired political clout and glory and are bypassed, and those at the bottom are burdened beyond belief by projects they had little say in, no control over nor adequate preparation and training.

For Apple, the current state of affairs means it won't be selling iPads to the LAUSD for now, and classrooms will be given alternate technology, like Google Chromebooks. Depending on exactly what the FBI finds in the documents it took, Apple could be facing some questions, too.

The seized documents may show whether or not district officials acted improperly, unethically, or even criminally, when they singled out Apple for the technology deal. They will likely also reveal how deeply Apple was involved in shaping the approval process. If the company's role went beyond contract bidding, then its executives could find themselves in an awkward and embarrassing situation.

Apple is set to head into court later this month to plead its case in hopes of overturning a federal court verdict saying it was the ringleader in a conspiracy with publishers to artificially raise the price of books. Apple executives have adamantly denied there was a conspiracy, but the case has stained the company's reputation. If the district's documents show Apple took an active role is shaping the approval process, that will lead to some uncomfortable inquiries into the company's practices, and will undoubtedly lead to new lawsuits.

Based on the information that's available now, however, it looks more like school district executives shaped the process to favor Apple and even went so far as to tell the company exactly what it wanted in a proposal.

Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, it's ultimately the students, teachers, and tax payers that lose out. They don't have the technology or curriculum they were promised, and the money lost to the project can't be used to improve classrooms.