Opinion: Daily Journal

DPI Database Needs Scrutiny

In 2013, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction unveiled Home Base, billed as a “suite of digital classroom management tools and instructional resources,” to replace the disastrous NC WISE computer system. DPI officials used state and federal Race to the Top funds to pay three primary vendors — Pearson, Public Consulting Group, and Truenorthlogic — for the initial development and implementation of the Home Base system.

The most important application in the Home Base suite is the PowerSchool student information database. Teachers and administrators use PowerSchool to record student attendance, course enrollment, grades, and information that frankly very few parents know are being collected on their children.

Simply put, PowerSchool was designed to make educators’ jobs easier and data collection more transparent, but it may have done the opposite.

In February 2014, widespread problems with the system prompted state education officials to ask Pearson to refund a portion of its $7.1 million fee. Then-Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Heath Morrison later called PowerSchool “a train wreck.”

Problems persisted through the end of the year, and by February 2015 Pearson announced it was selling PowerSchool. Private equity firm Vista Equity Partners purchased PowerSchool for $350 million last year and established PowerSchool Group LLC to manage it.

But problems continue. Unless you follow @nchomebasealert on Twitter or receive email alerts from PowerSchool staff, you are not aware of the system’s outages and malfunctions.

There are a handful of exceptions, however, when the public gets a glimpse of the problems that teachers and administrators encounter. For example, in October media outlets reported that a cyberattack forced about 20 North Carolina school systems to delay issuing report cards.

Things have gotten so bad that Rich Gay and Chad Dirks of the PowerSchool Group sent a letter apologizing to DPI. In their February memo to state education officials, Gay and Dirks wrote:

“PowerSchool Group LLC has been working hard to provide North Carolina users a solution that is dependable and user-friendly. We know that for the past few months the ongoing performance issues related to the CenturyLink hosting facility have had an unacceptable toll on the business of your districts. …We sincerely apologize for the performance issues you have experienced. You have our renewed commitment that we are taking immediate action to dedicate the resources and tools necessary to keep your PowerSchool server up and running with success.”

Less than a week later, DPI responded, “We are aware that the current work environment has not met expectations and is operating at an unacceptable level to support the important work you do on a daily basis.” They pledged to “push” PowerSchool Group to resolve outstanding issues.

Making matters worse, federal funds no longer are available to subsidize at least part of the annual cost of the Home Base system. Districts and charter schools that opt for Home Base will be required to fork over state and local funds to cover the required per student fee.

Because of the amount of data already in the system and the prohibitive cost of migrating student information to another application, districts and most charter schools will be forced to pay the PowerSchool ransom.

As North Carolina approaches the three-year anniversary of Home Base, it is worth asking whether the PowerSchool platform is financially and technologically sustainable. While implementation problems were to be expected during the first year of operation, state education officials appear to have spent tens of millions of taxpayer dollars for a system that, like its predecessor NC WISE, has the word “boondoggle” written all over it.

Dr. Terry Stoops (@TerryStoops) is director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation.