Mississippi’s public schools will be able to use CARES Act funds to buy remote-learning products, such as laptops, from vendors other than those on a pre-approved list. The move came after State Auditor Shad White charged that the Mississippi Department of Education was illegally requiring schools to only purchase products on its “Express Product List,” which includes only California-based Apple and CDW Government, Inc.
CDW is based in Illinois and provides various information technology services, including hardware, software, networking, security and cloud computing.
Some schools have struggled to purchase equipment students need to learn virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic, as computer manufacturers around the country cite shortages. Limiting schools to only a few options would have made it more difficult for them to obtain the necessary equipment.
In an Aug. 24 letter to Gov. Tate Reeves, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn, White cited the Equity in Distance Learning Act, a 2020 law that allows schools to purchase remote learning equipment from vendors outside the list.
“The Legislature expressly authorized school districts to purchase technology outside the EPL, too. Buying off MDE’s approved vendor list was simply an option. … The Office of the State Auditor has learned that MDE has decided that no school—regardless of whether they meet the criteria—may purchase technology outside MDE’s preferred list and be reimbursed,” White said.
The auditor said he has “a responsibility to shed light on places where the law around public money is being willfully ignored.”
“I also have concerns that MDE, by their own admission, only sought bids from four technology companies when preparing their list of vendors,” he said. “While that action may have been legal, I am not sure it was wise, especially given the fact that a Mississippi-based company told us their proposal was not considered.”
He did not name the Mississippi company.
MDE responded the next day, denying White’s claim that it was barring states from buying outside the vendor list.
“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,” Mississippi State Superintendent Carey Wright said on Aug. 25. “At no point did Mr. White contact me about his concerns.”
The Equity in Distancing Learning Act allots $150 million to school districts to purchase computers and software tools for digital learning to school districts statewide.
Wright confirmed White’s claim that MDE considered bids from four vendors submitted to provide devices, but only two “met all MDE requirements for the program”: Apple and CDW Government Inc.
She said that “an outside technology group of experts evaluated the bids,” but did not name the group.
“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 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 MDE statement reads.
In the MDE statement, Mississippi State Board of Education Jason Dean said the intent of the Equity in Distance Learning Act was “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 within the deadline set by the law.”
“School districts around the country are having their computer deliveries delayed because millions of people around the world are trying to buy computers at the same time,” he said.
MDE’s Aug. 25 statement said that three of the biggest computer manufacturers, including Lenovo, HP and Dell, have told school districts that they have a combined shortage of around five million laptops. Manufacturers have cited President Donald Trump’s tariffs on Chinese manufacturers as a contributing factor to the shortages, MDE noted.
“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 one another, there will be winners and losers.”
In a statement later that day, Auditor Shad White disputed MDE’s claim that it had been following the law.
“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,” White said. “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.”
Still, White said he was glad that MDE was “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,” he said. “I hope this will give school districts at least some flexibility to buy outside of MDE’s favored vendor list.”