Maine Laptop Program Bugged by Budget Concerns

Maine's cutting-edge program to provide laptop computers to public middle school students has exceeded the expectations of proponents, converted many critics and sparked a nationwide trend toward personal computing in the classroom.

Taking a cue from Maine's success, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Pennsylvania are launching programs with laptops or handheld computers such as Palm Pilots for students.

But the state's high-tech triumphs haven't convinced the Maine Legislature to expand the program to high school as originally planned. The 2004 legislative session ended without any money allocated to buy laptops for the state's ninth-graders.

Lawmakers see the value of the program, but the state has lots of other priorities, such as covering the rising costs of Medicaid, said House Speaker Patrick Colwell (D). "Frankly, I think we would have funded the extension, but the timing was so bad."

Seventh- and eighth-graders still will receive Apple ibooks, first introduced in schools in 2002, at least until 2006 when a four-year $37.2 million lease runs out, said Tony Sprague, the project's director at the Maine Department of Education. After that, schools will have the option to purchase the laptops for about $40 each.

The idea to give laptops to students and teachers was the controversial brainchild of former Gov. Angus King (I), who pushed it through a reluctant Legislature in 2001. This year, each of the nearly 34,000 students and 3,000 teachers at 240 middle schools are using a laptop computer.

Initially, the program was derided by teachers and school boards as a classroom distraction and a waste of money, said Patrick Phillips, Maine's deputy commissioner of education. Critics worried that students would break or lose the computers, or spend their class time surfing the Internet and "instant-messaging" friends, he said.

"Now, there is very little debate about the usefulness of the program," Phillips said.

John Krasnavage, principal at the Skowhegan Area Middle School, said the computers, which are connected to the Internet through a wireless system in each of the state's middle schools, have transformed the classroom for both students and teachers.

"It's been fairly profound," he said.

Skowhegan middle-schoolers are allowed to take their computers home, but none has been lost, Krasnavage said.

Instead of being a distraction, computers have helped students organize their schoolwork, communicate quickly and more frequently with teachers and gain access to the universe of instant information on the World Wide Web, Krasnavage said.

"I underestimated what kind of impact it would have," Krasnavage told Stateline.org

Students complete more and higher-quality written work because computers make editing and rewriting easier, he said. In math and science, students worry less about making neat bar graphs and can think about how to display complex information more effectively. The new technology also has "recharged" teachers, even long-time veterans, because it allows them new and better ways to prepare and present their lessons, Krasnavage said.

Independent studies by researchers at the University of Southern Maine say the positive impact is being felt statewide. More than 80 percent of the teachers surveyed said students were more engaged in their schoolwork and producing better work, according to a February report from the Maine Education Policy Research Institute. More than 70 percent of the students surveyed by the institute said the laptops helped them to be more organized and complete higher-quality schoolwork more quickly.

The improvements were even greater for children more at risk of failing, such as those in special education and from low-income families. Without laptops next year, Phillips warns, those students may falter academically during a year that researchers have found to define the rest of the high school experience. Students who fail one or more classes during their freshman year are much more likely to drop out of high school.

In addition, next year's freshman class will be the first required to pass the state's higher standards for graduation. "If we're ramping up the expectations, we ought to be providing the tools," he said.

Rob Walker, president of the state's teachers union, countered that there will be some disappointment for the laptop-less freshmen, but said Maine's high schools will remain high quality. Their education will just be less innovative and hands-on, he said.

Although the state has become a national model for classroom technology, the Maine Legislature has consistently avoided a long-term commitment to the program.

A self-supporting endowment of state money set aside to pay for the computers and related teacher training was tapped to fill state budget shortfalls even as the program was being launched in the fall of 2002. All of that trust fund is gone now, said the Department of Education's Sprague, and the future of the program will depend on the state Legislature's approval.

The Legislature could have come up with a solution this year, but punted on proposals to increase the state's sales and sin taxes, said Phillips, Maine's deputy commissioner of education. And a November ballot initiative to cap state property taxes, if approved, will put the laptop program's future further in doubt, he said.

Gov. John Baldacci (D) and the state Department of Education are currently exploring options, such as leasing computers cost-free for one year from Apple.

Legislators, however, are worried that such an agreement will saddle them with the future costs of the program, Colwell said. "I think they would be wise to seek the Legislature's approval," he said.

Skowhegan Principal Krasnavage vented frustration at lawmakers: "It's not a debate between laptops and health care." Of course, the state has to take care of the Medicaid recipients, he said, but it also has an obligation to students' futures.

"We need to have [lawmakers] who are creative enough to find solutions because it's the right thing to do," he said. 

Tags: Education