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Teachers Unions Urge State to Reject Contract with Murdoch-Owned Vendor

Friday, August 05, 2011

The city and state teachers unions are urging the state to reject a $27 million contract with an educational technology company owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. The union presidents site the recent phone hacking scandal at one of Murdoch's London tabloids as a reason not to let Wireless Generation build a data system for tracking students and teachers.

In a letter to State Education Commissioner John King and Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew and New York State United Teachers President Richard Iannuzzi said:

"It is especially troubling that Wireless Generation will be tasked with creating a centralized database for personal student information even as its parent company, News Corporation, stands accused of engaging in illegal news gathering tactics, including the hacking of private voicemail accounts."

But Wireless Generation spokeswoman Joan Lebow sees no problem in guaranteeing privacy protections.

"Wireless Generation has always followed the highest standards of privacy in accord with industry regulations and across the country where we have data systems in 50 states," she stated.

She says no data would ever be shared with News Corp., and that Wireless is an independent subsidiary. She also noted that the company will make an "open source" "non-proprietary" data platform. That means other businesses can build applications for the site that will help teachers teach.

The union presidents also cite a recent "Daily News" report that other vendors were interested in working on the data warehouse, but that the state didn't solicit any other bids before choosing Wireless Generation.

A state education department spokesman says the agency stands by its selection of Wireless, which built a similar $80 million data system for New York City called ARIS. The ARIS system was criticized, however, because of problems with its rollout almost four years ago. Some principals now find the system very useful for keeping track of assessments and tests, but others say ARIS doesn't yet allow them to provide the more basic, day to day information sought by parents and teachers.

"Building data tool applications for tens of thousands of teachers, parents and students on top of a non-proprietary, open source data store is a highly complex project," said state education department spokesman Tom Dunn.

He also said the "other vendors," mentioned in the letter by the union presidents, were responding two years ago to a Request for Information for a much different project separate and distinct from the data warehouse.

The contract with Wireless Generation has not been officially approved yet by the state comptroller, who has until early September.

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