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Published in Print: November 5, 2003, as Budget Crises May Undercut Laptop Efforts

Budget Crises May Undercut Laptop Efforts

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Many Michigan school districts are saying they can't afford the state's plan to put laptop computers in the backpacks of all 6th graders. Meanwhile, in Maine, the nation's first statewide laptop program is looking financially vulnerable. And a growing number of highly touted laptop programs run by local districts are running into problems.

Those troubles highlight the reality that such initiatives are often easier to start than to sustain. Educators say the programs are also prime targets for cuts during budget crises.

"How can we add another program while we're increasing class size?" said Brian Whiston, the director of government and community services for the Oakland, Mich., school district, a regional agency that provides services to 28 districts. He said the districts served by his agency would have to spend $100,000 to $700,000 to start the laptop program.

In Michigan's case, experts say district officials' negative reaction to the state plan reflects a more mature understanding of the costs of technology than in years past.

When Michigan legislators and the governor approved $39 million last summer to help provide a laptop to every public school 6th grader in the state, they expected school districts and their constituents to line up with smiles and open hands.

Instead, many district administrators say they will opt out of the statewide expansion of Michigan's 2-year-old Freedom to Learn pilot project.

"We're not prepared to absorb the initial costs," said David M. Richards, the director of educational technology and information systems for the 14,250-student Rochester community schools. Moreover, Mr. Richards said, he was concerned about whether state funding would be available to sustain the program for the next two or three years.

Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm is also re-evaluating the program.

Just two months after pledging to commit $22 million in state money and $17 million in federal funds to the expansion, the first-term Democrat announced last week that she favors using the state portion to help bridge a $900 million state budget gap.

Local Struggles

Many schools and districts around the country are also struggling to keep local laptop programs afloat as they have to make tough budget decisions.

The 390-student Emerson Elementary School in Snohomish, Wash., had a laptop program for six years. Principal Maureen Cornwell started the program in 1996. But the effort has petered out over the past several years because of problems such as parents' failure to pay their share of the cost for their children's computers, Ms. Cornwell said.

And, she said, the program lost support from district leaders.

Paula Koehler, the Snohomish district's curriculum director, said a budget crisis and a concern that other district schools did not have laptops had led to a decision to "sunset" the program.

Similar scenarios have played out in other districts.

For instance, the 18,000-student Beaufort County, S.C., schools also started a laptop initiative in 1996. It drew national attention.

To get the program started, a district foundation gave subsidies to help needy families buy laptops, and more than 5,000 were purchased over the years. The district then spent heavily on teachers' professional development and on computer networks and software.

But the foundation fell $3.5 million into debt, in part because of the failure of parents to pay what they owed, said Barbara Catenaci, the district's educational development specialist.

The district still uses laptops, but the program is "down dramatically," she said, and the foundation no longer helps families pay for the computers.

Michigan and Maine

Some political leaders in Michigan promote the laptop program as a way to vault ahead of other states.

"We can't afford not to do this, with states around the country on the verge of doing the same thing," said Matt Resch, the press secretary for state Speaker of the House Rick Johnson, a Republican.

Mr. Johnson spearheaded the state's $9.5 million pilot test in 2001, and he plans to resist Gov. Granholm's attempt to scale back the plan, Mr. Resch said.

But at the moment, most districts are more worried about affording their share of the cost, which starts with a $25-per-student annual fee for participation, school officials said.

Some observers point out that the costs of sustaining a laptop program are often more of a challenge than getting started.

"Don't take [the laptops] if you aren't prepared to deal with them," said Harvey Barnett, a senior research associate at WestEd, a San Francisco-based group that advises schools on a host of subjects, including technology.

Michigan educators also cite bitter memories of the state's promise in 1989 to pay for "free" computers for schools, which the state backed away from after the governorship changed hands in the 1990 election. That left districts with huge unbudgeted costs because they had already purchased the computers.

Even in Maine—a model for the Michigan effort—the laptop initiative is running into troubles.

Gary Lanoie, the technology coordinator for Maine's Cape Elizabeth schools, said the 1,800-student district had taken on new costs to support the 320 laptops—including installing additional wireless connections— that were given to all 7th and 8th graders.

But next year, he said, the students entering 9th grade will have to give up their laptops.

"It's not fair to have them use them for two years and then take them away," Mr. Lanoie said.

He noted that the original plan, conceived during years of budget surpluses, set up an endowment that would have supported laptops for high school students. "It was a good idea, but the legislature raided that account during tough budget times," he said.

Maine laptop supporters also say a measure on the state ballot this week could drastically alter the laptop program. If voters approve Question 1 on the Nov. 4 ballot, the state will be required to pay 55 percent of the local cost of education, up from about 40 percent now. Such a change potentially could throw state spending plans and the laptop program for a loop.

Still, some nationally recognized laptop programs appear to be doing fine.

For example, the Henrico County, Va., school district—which has issued 22,000 laptops to all students in grades 6-12—commits between 4 percent and 5 percent of its operating budget to technology. That includes money to buy and upgrade laptops, according to officials from the 44,500-student district in suburban Richmond.

"You need that level of support," said Bill Rust, a research director at Gartner Inc., a Stamford, Conn.-based firm that analyzes school technology programs.

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Vol. 23, Issue 10, Pages 1,21

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