N.Y.C. Schools to Decide on Amazon Contract Worth Up to $64.5M

Associate Editor

New York City public schools today announced plans to move forward on a proposed Amazon contract for an online e-book marketplace for educators, after the deal stalled for seven months while concerns about accessibility for blind and visually impaired users were addressed.

If the agreement is ratified on April 20, the online marketplace will be built by Amazon—at no cost to New York City schools—and be ready to launch in the first part of a five-phase rollout in the 2016-17 school year. Amazon will be paid only based on sales to schools.

The contract’s value is $30 million for the first three years, with the option of another $34.5 million if the city’s schools choose a two-year renewal. The department’s Panel for Educational Policy will be voting on the proposal.

The city’s education department indicated in a statement that the online marketplace is designed to address many of “the major current concerns of our schools relating to school texts:” lack of space for textbooks; deterioration and loss of books; the inability to easily compare options and prices, and being unable to exchange book licenses with other classrooms and schools.

Beyond that, the city cited the concept of an online marketplace as one that “assures robust competition and prevents a single publisher or re-seller from monopolizing our book procurements,” the announcement said.

Amazon’s proposal was the best of 14 submitted, and the selection committee chose it both with and without consideration of the price, the city school district said last July.

The Controversy

But a protest lodged by the National Federation of the Blind in August derailed the plan for a final vote on the proposal for the 1.1 million-student district. The organization had been arguing for years that the custom Kindle format poses a challenge to screen readers used by people with print-reading disabilities.

When the proposed Amazon contract became public knowledge, the federation threatened a public protest, which it called off when the vote was officially delayed.

Three weeks ago, the federation announced that it will collaborate with Amazon on “improvements to Amazon’s education content, platforms, and applications,” adding that representatives from online retailer and the Baltimore-based advocacy organization will meet on an ongoing basis “to review progress and exchange ideas.”

Now, the city’s schools are taking credit for being the catalyst that started the conversation. The department of education “is pleased to have brought Amazon and the National Federation of the Blind to the table for an agreement that will improve e-book accessibility for students with disabilities,” said Corinne Rello-Anselmi, deputy chancellor for specialized instruction and student support, in a statement.

A spokesman for the federation said it will not be commenting on the New York City contract at this time. Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.

Pending approval by the panel, blind and visually impaired students in New York will be able to benefit from the e-book marketplace, according to the city’s statement. “This is also an important step forward for the blind and visually impaired community nationwide,” said Rello-Anselmi.

The Marketplace

Once the marketplace is open, school administrators will be able to access it through the education department’s ShopDOE tool, a website that they are already accustomed to using. On the new marketplace, schools and educators will be able to choose among content that the department of education has contracted for, as well as content that is not part of an official city schools contract.

Much of the contracted e-content, including the education department’s core curriculum used by about 1,000 elementary and middle schools – is already available in e-book or e-content form.

“While some of the content of DOE-contracted vendors is not currently available in e-content form, we are confident that—because of the DOE’s unparalleled market share—contracted vendors will make more e-content available through this marketplace in the coming years,” the city said in its statement.

Schools also will be able to purchase content through Amazon at the same or less than published prices. “We looked at a sampling of 162 of our most frequently purchased trade books and, where the vendors’ proposals were sufficiently detailed for meaningful comparison, Amazon’s prices were the lowest on average,” the reviewers of the contract said. “Our evaluation also found that Amazon offered a particularly robust catalog of digital content.”

Amazon’s payment will be based on a commission on education department-contracted e-content and their sales of non-contracted content. The department said it expects the content sales through the marketplace to replace or supplement what schools currently spend on paper texts and trade books.

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