When they arrive for the first day of school this week, 18,000 Maine seventh graders will find a new laptop computer on their desk, thanks to a state program designed to arm them with the best technological skills in the world.
The Maine Learning and Technology Initiative aims at giving young public school students the tools and training they'll need to enter a global economy that's shifting toward more technical- and intellectual-based jobs.
Started as a pilot project last March in nine schools, the initiative has grown to become the largest educational program in the state's history. Its official launch today (9/3) will encompass 239 middle schools throughout the state. State officials estimate it will cost about $300 a year for each participating student.
Speaking at the annual Conference of New England Governors and Canadian Premiers in Quebec last week, Maine Gov. Angus King said the initiative represents 1.5 percent of the state's $23 million school budget this year. He also boasted that it may well be "the largest educational technology project in the history of North America."
King said the pilot project conducted last spring from March through June in cooperation with Apple Computer produced dramatic results that can't be ignored. Within three months, he said, disciplinary problems dropped 75 percent, absenteeism declined by two-thirds and, more importantly, the kids in the program developed a much more positive attitude about their schools and teachers.
Although the pilot project proved successful - and had the financial backing of several corporate sponsors - it got off to a rocky start due in part to the state's fiscal problems.
Earlier this summer, King was assailed by some lawmakers for wanting to spend too much money on the program, which involves a four-year, $37 million contract with Apple to provide iBook laptops capable of wireless hookup to the Internet. Several legislators sought to have the contract canceled, saying the money would be better spent on other programs or held in cash reserves to meet school funding emergencies.
The initiative, which King has been pushing for two years, started out as a $50 million proposal. But because of revenue shortfalls, the governor's funding request was cut. So far, only $25 million has been set aside for the laptop purchases and it's still unclear whether the full terms of the contract will be met.
Anticipating state financial problems, King has suggested that $10 million of the fund be used if necessary to help keep the state budget in balance. State officials said that would leave only enough money to cover two more years of computer purchases.
The legislature would have to allocate more money to finish out the Apple contract, which also calls for providing laptops to eighth graders in 2003 and expanding the program in the next two years to cover every middle and high school student in the state.
While most states have established programs to provide computers and Internet connections for their schools, the Maine initiative is one of the first in the country with the goal of actually placing a computer in the hands of every student.