By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The Los Angeles school board, in the middle of a troubled $1 billion plan to equip each student with an iPad, has voted to try laptops at some high schools before deciding whether to give all its 650,000 pupils a tablet.
The Los Angeles Unified School District technology rollout is the largest of its kind for any U.S. public education system. It comes as education officials in other parts of the country experiment with ways to give students mobile computers.
The landmark project ran into problems at the start of this school year when about 300 high school students among an initial 25,000 pupils to get the iPad bypassed its security protocols to access social networking and other websites blocked to them.
As a result of that breach, Superintendent John Deasy has temporarily forbidden students from taking the iPads home.
Deasy has described the rollout as a civil rights initiative designed to give students, mostly from low-income families, access to a 21st century tool common in middle-class households.
Students are supposed to use it to take standardized tests, do homework, read curriculum, play learning games, capture video and more. But they also want to use the devices for fun.
At a contentious meeting late on Tuesday, some school board members brought up other potential problems, including whether laptops might be more useful than tablets in high schools and whether the district got the best deal possible from iPad maker Apple Inc and digital curriculum company Pearson.
In the end, the school board voted 6-1 to move forward with equipping students with iPads at 35 schools on top of the 47 in the initial phase already begun. Deasy had last month called for completing the iPad rollout in late 2015 but said on Tuesday that could be pushed back.
The revised plan calls for hiring an evaluator to study the effectiveness of the program and allow the board to examine its options before moving forward with a last batch of some 450 schools. That would come before the board at some point in the 2014-2015 school year, Deasy said.
The plan calls for giving students at seven high schools laptops to study the effectiveness of that device.
"My intent is to make sure our students have the best devices and the best curriculum as we move forward," said board member Monica Ratliff, who has cited opinions from older students who find laptops easier to use for essays and other projects.
She said she still was not convinced the iPad is "the appropriate device." Her colleague Steve Zimmer expressed worries about the price the district is paying for the iPads.
"I don't feel like we have the best contract, I don't," he said. "And I've done everything I can to get my head to a place where I feel comfortable with the contract but I'm not."
The district is paying $768 per iPad, higher than the baseline retail price of $499 because the district's version comes with educational software and other enhancements, officials said. Once it spends $400 million on iPads, the district will receive $13.5 million in discounts.
The $1 billion price tag for the rollout includes $366 million to upgrade Wi-Fi and other infrastructure at schools.
(Additional reporting by Dana Feldman in Los Angeles; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Andrew Hay)