MDE disputes State Auditor’s letter on Equity in Distance Learning Act

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JACKSON, Miss. (WJTV) – The Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) disputed State Auditor Shad White’s claims that the agency is ignoring state law in its implementation of the Equity in Distance Learning Act (SB 3044) and is making it difficult for districts to purchase technology for students.

“Mr. White’s August 24, 2020 letter to state leaders and lawmakers is inaccurate and devoid of all context about the intent of this law,” said Dr. Carey Wright, state superintendent of education. “The MDE is implementing SB 3044 with fidelity and has been working diligently on behalf of districts to ensure every student in Mississippi is equipped with the technology to learn at school or at home. At no point did Mr. White contact me about his concerns.”

According to MDE, the Equity in Distance Learning Act provides $150 million to school districts to pay for computer devices for students and teachers, software to deliver instruction, enhanced internet connectivity, and professional development for digital teaching and learning.

The law directs the MDE to develop a system for districts to purchase technology within a statewide bulk plan to ensure the best price, quality and on-time delivery. Devices purchased through the Equity in Distance Learning Act will have all software, security and support features built in and configured for immediate use.

According to a release from MDE, four vendors submitted bids. An outside group of technology experts evaluated the bids and selected CDW-Government to supply districts with devices through an Express Products List (EPL). Apple was also included in the EPL as an emergency procurement. CDW-Government and Apple are the only companies that met all MDE requirements for the program.

Products can only be secured from vendors not on the EPL if the school can demonstrate to the MDE that the products include the software, security and support features of products on the EPL, meet or exceed the technical specification and functionality required by the MDE, and can be purchased at a price that is less than any of the prices listed on the EPL for a comparable product. The law requires computer devices to be delivered within the deadline for school districts to be reimbursed for their cost.

“The intent of the legislation is for MDE to use the buying power of the state so individual school districts are not competing against each other to find a vendor who can guarantee delivery of computers by within the deadline set by the law,” said Dr. Jason Dean, chairman of the Mississippi State Board of Education. “School districts around the country are having their computer deliveries delayed because millions of people around the world are all trying to buy computers at the same time.”

According to the Associated Press, the world’s three biggest computer companies, Lenovo, HP and Dell, have told school districts around the country they have a shortage of nearly 5 million laptops, in some cases exacerbated by U.S. sanctions on Chinese suppliers.

“The MDE’s digital learning plan was designed to ensure equity by guaranteeing that every student in Mississippi would be provided with a digital device that was configured and supported to help them be successful,” Wright said. “If districts are forced to compete against each other, there will be winners and losers.”

State Auditor White has issued the following statement about MDE’s statement about his letter:

Yesterday my team and I wrote a letter that pointed out that the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) was ignoring the law on COVID-19 stimulus money for technology.

Again, as the letter stated, MDE told schools that schools ‘shall . . . purchase products from vendors listed on the Express Product List.’ This contradicts the law. And I didn’t make those words up. Those are MDE’s words. We have multiple documents showing this, along with emails from MDE confirming that this was their position, along with accounts from several local superintendents who were told this. Facts are stubborn things.

Today MDE wrote a press release finally acknowledging that schools do not have to buy from MDE’s preferred vendors. I’m glad they changed their position, even if it did take them being called on the carpet. I hope this will give school districts at least some flexibility to buy outside of MDE’s favored vendor list.

State Auditor Shad White, (R-Miss.)

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