Almost exactly one year ago, North Carolina Superintendent Mark Johnson announced a major technology purchase for K-3 teachers: everyone would be getting an iPad.
Eyebrows shot up all over the state, especially the eyebrows of anyone who had recently seen the price tags at an Apple store.
NC Department of Public Instruction (DPI) spokesman Drew Elliot said literacy consultants had recommended iPads as the overwhelming choice for early elementary children, and that purchasing a large number of devices meant a bulk discount and no sales tax. The department put the overall cost of the iPads at around $6 million for 24,000 tablets.
Just when taxpayers’ eyebrows had settled down to their standard position, a story by NC Policy Watch’s Billy Ball shot them right back up again. It turned out the iPad purchase had come mere months after Mark Johnson and a handful of influential state legislators were wined and dined at Apple’s headquarters in Silicon Valley.
At its September 2018 meeting, the State Board of Education had some pointed questions for Superintendent Johnson, as board members objected to not being notified prior to this large expenditure. According to meeting minutes and social media accounts by those in attendance, Johnson bristled and asked that such questions occur by telephone or email rather than at a public meeting.
Apart from the ethical questions raised by the interaction with Apple, the fact that this purchase was made by the superintendent at all was problematic. State law holds that individual school districts should be provided with funds for electronic devices and allowed to make decisions about purchases on their own. After all, each district’s needs and capabilities are different.
At the February meeting of the State Board of Education, Mark Johnson acknowledged as much, admitting that some districts preferred to use Google Chromebooks and noting there were unused iPads remaining in the warehouse (apparently they were sent out to school districts that didn’t want them and then returned).
Johnson said the plan was to distribute those iPads in the spring. When pressed by board member Wayne McDevitt on the exact number of iPads in the warehouse, the superintendent said he didn’t have the exact number but it was in the “low thousands.”
When the State Board met in March, Superintendent Johnson was again asked how many iPads remained in the warehouse, this time by Chairman Eric Davis. Johnson put the number at “just over 2,000” and said they would be distributed in spring and summer so they could be used for the 2019-2020 school year.
It turns out that number was off–by quite a lot.
According to a source within DPI, as of August 2019, the number of iPads currently in the warehouse is 3,269. That’s right, nearly 15% of the iPads Mark Johnson bought without consulting districts are collecting dust at the North Carolina Textbook Warehouse in Raleigh.
Let’s leave aside for a moment the argument that these tablets should probably never have been purchased to begin with, due to ethical and procedural considerations. The fact is they belong to North Carolina taxpayers now. And they need to be in classrooms in front of our students.
**update: A day after this piece was published, Superintendent Mark Johnson offered an explanation for the discrepancy in numbers between how many warehoused iPads were reported to the State Board of Education in March and how many are currently in inventory. Johnson said he purchased an additional 800 iPads last month.