Amid Massive Pandemic Growth, A Major Educational Software Provider Broke The Ethics Code Of The Nation’s Second-Largest School District
School districts across the country spent unprecedented amounts of money on online learning products during the pandemic, with little oversight.
The country’s second-largest school district, Los Angeles Unified, temporarily banned one of the nation’s biggest remote learning software suppliers from selling its products there after the company violated the district’s code of ethics.
In a letter sent Dec. 1, 2021, an LAUSD official told software company Imagine Learning that it had violated its Contractor Code of Conduct in April 2021 by hiring district teacher Heath Webster to sell software to the district. The company was ordered to remove Webster from any LAUSD accounts through December 2022, and to “immediately stop soliciting business from LAUSD” until it registered as a lobbying organization and complied with other district demands. Imagine Learning currently has millions of dollars worth of contracts with the district, largely through its November 2021 merger with digital curriculum company Edgenuity.
“Selling to LAUSD is a privilege that requires ethical conduct,” said the letter, a copy of which was obtained by BuzzFeed News. By violating the district’s “cooling period” rule, meant to prevent the appearance of a “revolving door,” the district said the company had “failed to live up to these expectations.”
Imagine Learning spokesperson Elliott Sloane said the company hired Webster under the impression that teachers were not subject to LAUSD’s “cooling period” rule. The company has since removed Webster from its LAUSD accounts and fulfilled the other requirements of the district, which Sloane called a “valued customer.” The company received permission to begin selling to LAUSD again on Jan. 4, according to a letter seen by BuzzFeed News.
“Imagine Learning worked cooperatively with LAUSD during this short period to address LAUSD’s concerns, which, as evidenced by the LAUSD letter dated January 4, 2022, were addressed to their satisfaction,” company spokesperson Elliot Sloane wrote in an email statement.
The coronavirus pandemic that drove schools online in 2020 and 2021 created a crisis in education, but a gold rush for the ed tech companies that helped make remote learning possible. This previously unreported rebuke of one of the largest of those firms, Imagine Learning, highlights the complications involved in public schools’ increased spending and reliance on products sold by private companies.
When parent company and private equity firm Weld North announced the merger of Imagine Learning with other holdings in its portfolio, including Edgenuity, in November 2021, it said its software was being used by more than 10 million students in more than 7,500 school districts. Among the largest of those districts, with half a million students and a budget of $24 billion, was LAUSD.
During the pandemic, the district has relied on Edgenuity software to remotely teach students who opted into the district’s virtual learning program. It also uses the software for summer school — a $2.9 million contract — as well as for enrichment during in-person classroom learning, licenses which cost the district $10.9 million, according to district data analyzed by BuzzFeed News. In total, the district spent $11.08 million on Edgenuity in 2020 and $30.61 million in 2021 — nearly 10 times the amount it spent in 2019, and more than twice as much as it spent in the five years prior to the pandemic combined.
But as the district’s spending on Edgenuity software increased, so did complaints from parents, teachers, and students who said the district’s virtual learning program was too time-consuming, failed to meet the needs of students with disabilities, and didn’t provide kids enough face time with teachers. And in November, the district’s inspector general opened an investigation into the company’s contracts following a complaint, BuzzFeed News reported at the time.
“Like school districts across the country, the response to the pandemic required additional investments to ensure continuity of learning,” district spokesperson Shannon Haber told BuzzFeed News via email. “The Los Angeles Unified School District regularly reviews and evaluates curricula selections.”
The concerns in LA echoed national outcry about the way Edgenuity was being used during the pandemic: As BuzzFeed News reported in an October 2021 investigation, students using Edgenuity across the country sometimes waited hours with no response from Edgenuity’s online tutors, went weeks without talking to district teachers, and frequently failed their courses. In October 2021, Plano Independent School District announced it would stop using Edgenuity for virtual learning following parent complaints.
Edgenuity has previously been at the center of allegations of ethics violations. In 2016, a member of the Alabama State Board of Education suggested that Edgenuity should be barred from doing business in the state after an elected official the company had hired, then–House Speaker Mike Hubbard, was charged with a felony ethics violation pertaining to his deal with the company. Hubbard was ultimately convicted on 12 total counts, including one for using his office to obtain “a thing of value” from Edgenuity. Edgenuity, which was not charged with any crime, has continued to operate in Alabama.
In LA, the ethics violations committed by Imagine Learning, which now encompasses Edgenuity and its contracts, are not criminal. Instead, documents released via public records request show that by hiring Webster in April 2021 to, according to an email he sent the district, “sell Edgenuity/Imagine Learning to LAUSD,” Imagine Learning disregarded regulations intended to prevent vendors from gaining an “unfair competitive advantage.”
Webster, who was hired as an account executive by Imagine Learning Regional Director of Sales Brian Chernow on April 19, 2021, first asked LAUSD for written permission to sell Imagine Learning software to the district in Jan. 2021, repeating this request seven times by Nov. 17, 2021. “This is URGENT for I may be relieved of my job if there is no documentation,” he wrote in an email obtained via public records request.
Imagine Learning told LAUSD and BuzzFeed News that Webster received authorization to take the job via a phone call with an LAUSD human resource representative, but was not able to provide written documentation. In its response to his emails, the district declined to provide Webster with advice and said its ethics and procurement departments would be in touch with Imagine Learning directly. On Dec. 1, a district official wrote to Chernow informing him that by “employing Mr. Webster to solicit sales from LAUSD,” Imagine Learning had failed to meet its obligations as a contractor.
In order to resume doing business with LAUSD, Imagine Learning was asked to remove Webster from any LAUSD deals until Dec. 1, 2022, to register as a lobbying organization and retroactively report its lobbying activities, and to submit a document “describing the safeguards Imagine is putting in place to prevent this type of behavior in the future.”
Imagine Learning responded to the district within days, public records show, removing Webster from accounts and beginning the process of registering as a lobbying organization.
In a Dec. 6 email to the district, Imagine Learning also said it would administer an Annual Employee Conflict of Interest survey to all new hires on an annual basis, and that it would be “expanding its current conflict of interest policy and training” and train sales managers, specifically those working with LAUSD. Brian Chernow, the manager who hired Webster, is no longer with Imagine Learning, the company confirmed.