School districts and teachers in Michigan are gradually registering for a program that provides free laptops to every K-12 teacher through the state’s new Teacher Technology Initiative. Announced in December, the $110 million program is widely supported by the state’s legislature and Gov. John Engler.

Under the program, schools get $1,200 per teacher to buy laptop computers (from a half-dozen vendors), enhance web connectivity, or purchase other electronic equipment, such as digital cameras. Alternatively, schools can apply some or all of the funds to teacher training. At the heart of the concept is empowering teachers to use computers in the classroom by providing them with the necessary tools and training. “Technology is not something that can replace a teacher,” Engler said. “What it does is empower a teacher even more.”

Although school district leaders acknowledge the need for improving teachers’ computer skills through access to computers, some administrators are criticizing the program for not providing funds to support and maintain the machines. Critics say the costs of maintaining the laptops, purchasing additional software, and ensuring connectivity to the internet must be borne by any school or district that signs up for the program.

As of March 1, about 200 districts had sent in applications, representing approximately 24,000 of the state’s teachers. In total, Michigan has about 90,000 teachers. City school districts of Detroit, Grand Rapids, Lansing, and Traverse City have applied.

One reason for the delay in applications at this point is the program’s professional development requirement. To be eligible for the computers, all of a school district’s teachers must complete an online skills assessment and submit a form that explains how they plan to use their computer to enhance their professional development. So far, 60,000 teachers have completed the skills assessment.