There’s a hot debate in Texas over whether to replace all school textbooks with laptop computers by the end of the millennium.

The idea is the brainchild of Dr. Jack Christie, the chairman of the Texas Board of Education. Dr. Christie says he first considered it about three or four years ago, but the cost of laptops then made it impossible.

Now the board is facing $1.8 billion in projected costs for textbooks over the next six years, and Dr. Christie argues that given the drop in computer price tags, diverting funds to lease laptops may be more cost-effective—to say nothing of innovative.

The plan would give laptops to each of the state’s nearly four million elementary and high school students.

“Just last year, we replaced a social studies text that still had the Berlin Wall up, the Soviet Union existing, and Ronald Reagan as president,” Dr. Christie says. “With computers, all that information could be upgraded instantly . . . for about a dollar per student.”

Dr. Christie figures that any vendor would be willing to offer a volume discount for four million computers with the works—graphing calculators, PC card slots, modems for internet access, and curriculum software. He envisions a three-year, warranty-covered lease that would solve the problem of keeping up with technology upgrades. Christie estimates the cost at $300 million per year.

“Information becomes outdated so rapidly that we need a more efficient way to distribute knowledge. This approach fulfills the needs of students so much better than textbooks,” he says.

Not surprisingly, Dr. Christie’s idea faces criticism from publishers, who maintain that the costs of the plan would actually outweigh its benefits. “The reality is, it would not be as cheap or as effective as it would appear at first blush,” says Julie McGee, president of McDougal Littell in Evanston, Ill. “There are a lot of hidden costs in any computer implementation.”

For one thing, opponents say, teachers will need to be trained to use the computers in their classrooms. Also, as one Texas resident put it, “Books don’t crash or fail due to dead batteries” or other equipment problems. Maintaining the machines may require a significant investment over time. A third potential cost lies in replacing lost or damaged computers due to student negligence. “Kids aren’t known for being gentle with equipment,” says another resident.

“All the questions raised by the program are legitimate, but they can all be spoken to,” Dr. Christie responds. He maintains that blanket training of teachers statewide will keep costs down, and trained on-site staff can handle minor repairs. As far as durability of the computers, Dr. Christie says that one vendor offers a model with a hard-shell cover that can be dropped from three feet without significant damage.

Dr. Christie also sees the laptops as a way to bridge the gap between affluent and disadvantaged students. “Whether they’re in the poorest section of town or the wealthiest,” he says, “they’re going to have an equal shot. All of a sudden everyone starts at the same starting line.”

“I truly believe,” he adds, “it’s going to occur within the next few years. Why not make the investment now?”

Apple, Microsoft and Dell have all contacted Dr. Christie to express their interest, and the lieutenant governor has formed an interim committee to study the plan. Meanwhile, Dr. Christie broached the proposal in a presentation to the state legislature in January, and he’s already receiving cautious support from some of its members.

“I’m not proposing we do it in one fell swoop,” says State Senator Teel Bivins, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “It probably makes sense to start it in high schools or as a pilot program. But the point is, the days of textbooks and teachers standing at the head of the class are rapidly changing. I believe as a conservative that we have an obligation to taxpayers to get the best information at the most efficient price.”

Perhaps the biggest roadblock to the idea is the need to overcome the fears of most residents. “I had one mother call the board and say, ‘Honey, does that man have children? I can’t get my son to remember his raincoat, never mind a computer,'” says Dr. Christie.