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A year after NewsCorp doomed school data deal, SED tries again

A year after the state comptroller canceled a no-bid contract for a statewide student data system, the State Education Department has announced new contracts for the delayed project.

Four companies were awarded parts of a $50 million federal grant to develop the infrastructure for an “education data portal” that would serve as a hub of information for schools and teachers. One of the subcontractors is Wireless Generation, the company that lost the original $27 million contract.

The portal is meant to allow educators to track and use student performance data and exchange information about curriculum and instructional practices across the state. It was one of several new initiatives the state vowed to carry out in its 2010 application for the federal Race to the Top funding competition, in which New York netted $700 million.

“The Education Data Portal is an integral element of the Regents reform agenda and was an essential component of New York’s Race to the Top application,” said Education Commissioner John B. King, Jr., in a statement.

The state’s Race to the Top application promised to roll out the data system in October 2012 — two months from now. By a year from now, the portal was to serve 90 percent of the state’s intended audience, according to the Race To The Top application.

That timeline suffered a significant setback last year when state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli rejected the $27 million contract that was given exclusively to Wireless Generation, the Brooklyn-based education software developer.

In his rejection letter, DiNapoli cited the lack of competitive bidding and the fact that Wireless Generation’s parent company, News Corporation, was embroiled in controversy over illegal wiretapping conducted by some of its publications.

At the time, state education officials said the canceled contract would delay the education portal by at least a year. The delay was one reason that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan cautioned New York State for falling behind in implementing its Race to the Top promises earlier this year.

State officials explained last year that they gave Wireless Generation the no-bid deal because the firm was uniquely positioned to deliver the state’s student data system. Wireless Generation had developed similar infrastructure for New York City, known as ARIS, and it would have been able to build off of that.

Now, the officials say that three contracts awarded for student data management will yield better services than what Wireless Generation alone could have provided. Wireless Generation’s portion of the portfolio will focus on delivering curriculum materials to teachers and won’t bring the firm anywhere near student data, they said.

Three vendors were selected for the student data contracts: eScholar, Pearson/Schoolnet and ConnectEDU. They will be charged with developing software applications that use student data, including demographics, attendance rates and class grades, to provide useful information to teachers, students, and families. Next spring, each district will choose one of the vendors to provide its data services for three years, and the data system will roll out in the fall of 2013, state education officials said.

A spokeswoman for Wireless Generation said the company put in a bid to work on the student data component but was not among the vendors picked.

Instead, working as one of five subcontractors under a company named the Public Consulting Group, Wireless Generation will be in charge of overhauling EngageNY.org, a website that was developed to communicate with educators across the state. Currently, the website is largely a place where state education officials post and update information. But officials said they want the site to become more interactive, allowing educators to share their own practices with colleagues across the state.

The State Education Department now must submit the contracts for review to DiNapoli and New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. They will have 90 days to reject or approve them.

In a statement, DiNapoli’s office said the comptroller would be scrutinizing the contracts heavily.

“Each contract is reviewed on its own merits,” DiNapoli’s office said in a statement. “We will carefully examine whether the State Education Department has thoroughly looked at issues related to privacy and the integrity of vendors.”