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Future of state's data system in jeopardy after contract rejection

An essential piece of the state’s Race to the Top plans is in limbo after State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli shot down a controversial contract.

On Friday, DiNapoli rejected a $27 million contract with Wireless Generation to build a statewide “Education Data Portal” that would have allowed schools and teachers to track and use student performance data.

State teachers unions and advocates had protested the contract because it was offered without competitive bidding and because Wireless Generation’s parent company, News Corporation, is embroiled in controversy over illegal wiretapping conducted by some of its publications. DiNapoli cited both concerns in his letter to the State Education Department turning down the contract.

The rejection marks yet another setback in the state’s school reform plans. Last week, a judge ruled that the state should not be allowed to use student test scores to count for 40 percent of teachers’ evaluations, bringing to a standstill a centerpiece of New York’s Race to the Top plans. Now the data clearinghouse that would make the evaluations possible is also at risk.

New York’s Race To The Top application said that a pilot data program would be in place by this September to begin collecting information in some of the state’s school districts, and the system was scheduled for wide release in October 2012. By 2013-2014, the portal was to serve 90 percent of the state’s intended audience, according to the Race To The Top application.

That timeline will have to be delayed because of the contracts snafu, according to SED spokesman Jonathan Burman.

The timeline was already in jeopardy before DiNapoli turned down the Wireless Generation contract. But the process to land a new vendor is sure to be time-consuming and politically fraught. First the state must set out a request for proposals from vendors that think they can meet the state’s requirements. After vendors submit bids, state education officials will evaluate the proposals and select one before hammering out a new contract. Finally DiNapoli must approve the new contract.

The final step is required for every state contract larger than $50,000; last year, DiNapoli reviewed 36,000 contracts. A spokesman for DiNapoli’s office said the comptroller had used the maximum allowed review period, 90 days, to scrutinize the data system contract because of the problems outlined in the rejection letter.

Wireless Generation might well be one of the vendors competing for the new contract, spokeswoman Joan Lebow said in a statement. “We hope to have an opportunity to assist New York State in its important work that shows leadership in educational technology,” she said.

State officials have always insisted that Wireless Generation was uniquely equipped to handle the project. The company is already building the data systems for other Race to the Top winners, including Delaware and Indiana.

But its approval seems unlikely, given DiNapoli’s citation of the company’s NewsCorp connection in justifying his rejection. That means the state could wind up buying a data system later than anticipated from a company that’s relatively untested in the data business.

“Our office will review all options to implement the kind of system our schools need to move forward,” Burman said.

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