Stateline Story

Maine Closing Technology Gap for Students

  • September 19, 2005
  • By Kavan Peterson

The former governor of Maine who created the nation's only statewide program to give laptop computers to public school students is continuing his personal crusade to close Maine's digital divide by offering free home Internet access to low-income students.

Former Gov. Angus King (I), who left office in 2002, raised $850,000 in private funds this summer - including $100,000 from his own pocket - to create the nonprofit Maine Learning Technology Foundation to offer the free Internet access for the first time this school year.

The initiative builds on the state's four-year, $37-million program that has provided laptop computers to all seventh- and eighth-graders since 2002. The free home Internet connection will be offered to families of students in the laptop program who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.

Maine's cutting-edge laptop program has generated positive reviews from educators, converted many critics and sparked a national trend toward personal computing in the classroom. Yet despite the support of King's successor, Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, state funding for the program could end this year.

"Over the past three years I think we've erased any question that providing one-on-one computer access is a powerful education tool," King said. "However, some of our students have not had the opportunity to continue their learning outside of school because they lacked access to the Internet at home, and this puts them at a disadvantage."

King said that as governor, he envisioned Maine gaining an economic edge by becoming the most digitally literate state in the nation. He said his new foundation will work to promote that goal and encourage the state Legislature to continue funding technology in schools.

Despite the state's hi-tech triumphs, the Maine Legislature has voted down expanding the laptop program to high school as originally planned and has left the program unfunded after this school year.

Although Maine has become a national model for classroom technology, no other statewide programs have been launched. Michigan scaled back plans to provide laptops to the state's 132,000 sixth-graders and so far has provided computers to about 14,000 students in the state's neediest schools. Local school districts have launched their own laptop programs in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Pennsylvania.

"One of the problems we've faced is that the idea sprung to life at the very moment that everybody's (state) budgets collapsed," King said. "Circumstances have changed, but states are still struggling financially."

Now in its fourth year, the laptop program provides Maine's 34,000 seventh- and eighth-graders and their 3,000 teachers with Apple ibook laptops.

Initially, the program was derided by educators as a classroom distraction and resisted by the Legislature as a waste of money, said project manager Tony Sprague. Critics worried students would break or lose the computers or spend class time surfing the Internet and "instant-messaging" friends.

Now school administrators and teachers say the program has lived up to its promises of better engaging students in learning and leveling the academic playing field for Maine's many rural and under-served districts, Sprague said.

Last year, about three dozen high schools opted to spend more than $5 million in local tax dollars to provide laptops to 9 th -graders and their teachers.

"Given the fact that we have so many high schools going forward (buying laptops) on their own with scant local resources, it certainly is being seen as a success," Sprague said.

Sprague said that about 8,000 Maine seventh- and eighth-graders qualify for free or reduced lunches and so are eligible for free dial-up access. Low- income high school students participating in the laptop program also are eligible for the free access. All other students in the laptop program can purchase dial-up service at the discounted rate of $8.33 a month, or high-speed broadband service for $20 a month, from Maine-based Great Works Internet.

The state will host the free Internet accounts on its computer servers and will filter for content.

Independent studies by researchers at the University of Southern Maine say the positive impact of the laptop program is being felt statewide. More than 80 percent of the teachers surveyed last year said students who are using the state-provided laptops were more engaged in their schoolwork and produced better work, according to survey 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.

"It engages especially students that were lower performers and didn't have the interest in school by stimulating them in a way that fits their learning style," Sprague said.

Tags: Education