Maine Gov. Angus King, trying to bridge the digital divide in one of the poorest states in the country, has proposed giving all seventh-graders laptop computers to keep. If King gets his way, every child in Maine from seventh grade on will have his or her own laptop computer within six years.

Starting in 2002, the governor wants each of the state’s roughly 17,000 seventh-graders to get a computer, regardless of whether they have one at home. “We’re heading into an age when computer literacy is essential. It’s going to be as important as knowing how to read or write,” King told a small audience of students and teachers at Gardiner Middle School on March 2. “This isn’t a frill. This is essential … this is where the country’s going.”

A Gardiner seventh-grader, Jessie Stangel, called the idea great. “I have a computer at home, but it’s not so good, so I have to go to my neighbor’s house to do research.” The 13-year-old said that having her own computer would save her that trouble.

What King calls the nation’s most far-reaching school computer initiative has generated a cool, if not skeptical, response in the state house. Reaction among educators is mixed, but students are upbeat.

“The haves don’t need two or three computers at home,” said Howard McFadden, principal of an 80-student school in the tiny community of Edmunds Township. He would like to see the have-nots get computers, though.

The Edmunds Consolidated School is wired for computers, so there is one for every three or four pupils from kindergarten through the eighth grade, McFadden said.

Under the proposal, the governor hopes to draw $15 million in federal and private sources to supplement $50 million in surplus state money to create an endowment. Interest would buy every child a computer when he or she reaches seventh grade. King said students could use their laptops anywhere—at school, at home, even on the bus.

Some lawmakers have balked at the one-time cost of $50 million from the state budget, suggesting that fixing leaky school roofs and replacing worn buildings should get a higher priority. Requests for school repairs already far exceed the money available, they say.

“The choice of laptops over school renovations is something I can’t fathom,” said Rep. Elizabeth Townsend, D-Portland. Townsend, who cochairs the Appropriations Committee, says needed renovations in schools across the state add up to more than $100 million.

The proposal earned King praise from educators such as Chris Toy, principal of the Freeport Middle School in southern Maine, where 100 seventh-graders would be eligible.

“I think it’s a pretty reasonable approach. It’s a right of passage. You enter the seventh grade and you get your computer,” he said.

He discounted concerns about the cost, saying the money comes from a different source than the fund for school repairs and construction. “You definitely have to take care of bricks and mortar, but we also need to look at constructing students’ minds,” he said.

In Fort Kent, in the far northern corner of the state, Superintendent Sandra Bernstein called King’s plan interesting, but said she would rather see the money go to general school aid. “What I struggle with is the balance of need. When I’m faced with asking my board to hire an elementary art or phys-ed teacher, or every seventh-grader getting a computer, the scale balances toward the extra art or phys-ed teacher,” she said.

The prototype laptops sell for about $600 or $700, but the governor said he found prices in the $450 to $500 range while poking around on the internet.

According to a statewide survey of 400 Mainers in December, nearly six in 10 households had personal computers and about three-fourths of those with computers were connected to the internet.

King took issue with those who contend the money should be used for school repairs, saying, “We’re doing a ton of construction.” He said the state should not wait to implement his program “until every last gutter is fixed.”

The governor conceded that some computers would get broken, but said the state has “a built-in repair shop—it’s called the Maine Correctional Center,” where inmates rehabilitate computers for schools.

Maine Gov. Angus King’s office
http://www.state.me.us/governor/index.html