Amazon in Line to Sell E-Books to New York City's Schools



Amazon has dipped its toes into education before. Above, the new Amazon Books store at University Village in Seattle. ENLARGE
Amazon has dipped its toes into education before. Above, the new Amazon Books store at University Village in Seattle. Photo: Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Technology companies have long coveted classrooms, attempting over the years to persuade schools to adopt their devices and specialized software, with mixed success. Inc. AMZN 1.51 % will find out this week whether it is accepted into the nation’s largest school district. The Seattle online retailer is in line to be awarded a contract to sell e-books to New York City schools worth as much as $64.5 million over five years.

The city’s department of education will vote Wednesday on the initial three years of the contract, valued at about $30 million. The agency expects to buy $4.3 million worth of content from Amazon in the first year, $8.6 million in the second year and $17.2 million in the third, with Amazon earning a commission of between 10% and 15%.

Under the contract, which would take effect in the coming school year, officials can use the education department’s internal marketplace site to buy electronic textbooks and other content from Amazon for use by students on all sorts of devices.

Once purchased, the city will keep rights to the e-books and may transfer them from one school to another, said an education department spokesman. The contract doesn’t cover Amazon’s Kindle e-readers or other hardware.

Schools are an attractive target for tech companies because of the opportunity to modernize what many consider to be outdated and inefficient classrooms. There is the added bonus of possibly hooking millions of students on devices and services at a young age.

But the tangle of bureaucracy in public education has often kept the latest technologies out of classrooms.

Apple Inc. AAPL -2.16 % ran into trouble with its effort to distribute iPads to students in Los Angeles after an internal report leaked that cast doubt on the bidding process. It has nonetheless reached a deal to provide hardware to other school districts.

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Amazon’s potential contract with New York, which boasts 1.1 million students, was nearly derailed over concerns it didn’t include enough considerations for blind and vision-impaired children. The education department postponed a vote on the pact last August so Amazon could revise its plans to the satisfaction of the nonprofit National Federation of the Blind, or NFB.

The NFB had been concerned that much of Amazon’s e-book content wouldn’t allow for specialized software that can read books to the blind. “We can count on those improvements being implemented going forward,” said a spokesman for the organization, adding that he expected the NFB and Amazon to continue to meet regularly about accessibility matters.

An Amazon spokeswoman declined to comment.

A deal with Amazon would help the New York education department alleviate “not having enough space for textbooks” and “the physical decay and loss of books,” according to a statement from the agency.

Still, some education advocates worry that students retain less information when they read online, and that using e-books in place of textbooks may allow teachers to more closely monitor what students read and how much. “We don’t want our kids spied on any more than they are already,” said Leonie Haimson, executive director of the nonprofit Class Size Matters and a frequent critic of the city’s education department.

Some parents have also questioned how the department could ensure equal access to reading material, considering many poor students lack tablets and laptops at home.

A spokesman for the education department said the agency would account for students’ particular needs when buying educational materials, and tha
t e-books aren’t meant to entirely replace physical books.

Amazon has dipped its toes into education before, including buying startup TenMarks Education, which helps teachers create math curricula. And earlier this year it rolled out a public-relations campaign focused on changing children’s attitudes toward math.

The company has also reached deals to operate co-branded websites selling textbooks and other merchandise to a handful of colleges including University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Purdue University. Amazon is also installing package pickup centers on those campuses.

The New York education department said Amazon won the bidding process unanimously among 14 applicants in part because of its expansive content catalog and prices it said were lower than others on average.


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