Plan To Give Laptops To Maine 7th Graders Faces Doubtful Future

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 15, 2000 2 min read

A proposal by Gov. Angus King of Maine to buy a laptop computer for every 7th grader in the state isn’t getting much support from key legislators.

“At this point, it is highly unlikely it will see the light of day,” said Sen. Philip E. Harriman, the ranking Republican on the state’s joint appropriations committee.

While a growing number of schools and districts are providing laptops for their students, Mr. King, an Independent, is the first governor to propose the idea on a statewide basis.

His plan calls for using $50 million of unallocated state funds to set up an endowment, the interest from which would be used to buy the laptops starting in 2002. The students would be able to keep the computers through middle and high school, and even after graduation. This year, the state has about 16,000 7th graders.

“I can’t think of a more powerful way to use a pot of one-time money,” Gov. King said last week in an interview. The plan would help schools integrate technology into their classrooms, he added, noting that it would also address concerns about equity.

Without a statewide initiative, the governor said, individual districts will likely start buying a laptop for every student, with wealthier districts being first and the poorer ones left behind.

But while legislators said they saw merit in the governor’s idea, they predicted that other priorities for school spending would overshadow its chances of passage.

Sen. Harriman said schools need money for renovations more than they need laptop computers. The state has identified 80 such projects that need attention, but is now able to fund only 25.

“You have 55 projects for which people are telling their senators, ‘Why don’t you fix the roof?’” Mr. Harriman said.

A co-chairman of the appropriations committee, Sen. Michael H. Michaud, a Democrat, agreed that spending for school renovations will take precedence over laptops for the time being.

The state might be willing to consider buying the computers in the future, he noted. “If the economy is continuing to do well and is taking care of some of the needs like school renovation, [the laptop plan] might be beneficial,” Mr. Michaud said.

Positive Effects

A statewide laptop program has also been discussed in Texas. In 1997, when the state board of education was considering spending $1.8 billion on textbooks over a six-year period, its chairman, Jack Christie, said it might be better to buy student laptops.

The proposal received national attention, but was never fashioned into a concrete plan.

A 1998 study comparing groups of students using laptops with groups of their peers not using them found that the devices had some positive effects on teaching and learning. About 450 middle and high school students at four sites across the country participated in the study.

Rockman Et Al, a San Francisco-based independent research firm, found that students with laptops spent more time writing and produced more original writing than students without them. They also spent 10 times the amount of time on schoolwork outside of school and were more likely to engage in collaborative and active learning than students without laptops.

A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2000 edition of Education Week as Plan To Give Laptops To Maine 7th Graders Faces Doubtful Future