The Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) disputes 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.”

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.

As the law dictates, the bulk purchase system maximizes the buying power of Mississippi as a state and ensures all public-school students will receive computer devices before the deadlines set by the law.

The MDE has been working with districts since June to determine their digital technology needs. In accordance with the law, the MDE developed a statewide digital learning plan based on the needs districts documented in June. Districts were given the opportunity to modify their needs by July 31 before finalizing the list of devices they intended to order. After that, the MDE selected vendors and negotiated bulk pricing on behalf of districts.

“Though the law allowed the MDE to secure the devices through an emergency procurement, we went above and beyond the law by seeking bids from multiple vendors through a competitive process,” Wright said.

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 on 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 technological 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.”

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Release Mississippi Department of Education.