Maine’s $50 million endowment to provide laptop computers to schools got a strong show of support at a lengthy hearing before the Legislature’s Education Committee April 9. Educators, business leaders, and students said the program is vital to the state’s efforts to prepare its young people to compete in the high-tech global economy.

“The only way we can make my generation technology-savvy is to give them what they need for the future—in other words, give them laptops,” said Shelly Griffin, an eighth-grader from the Piscataquis Community Middle School in Guilford. Her school has made a major investment in computers, thanks to a grant and corporate funding.

“I’m here to tell you that I’ve seen it and it works very well and it will work everywhere” if the state is bold enough to invest in school technology, said Greg Bellemare, the principal at Griffin’s school.

All innovations appear foolish at first, said Ashok Nalamalapu, president of iCST, a Maine software company, but that changes over time.

“FedEx was silly. CNN was silly. The world wide web was silly. Are they silly now?” Nalamalapu asked. “Access to computers for seventh-graders may be silly now. Will it be silly five years from now?”

The few opponents at the hearing argued that supporters overstated the benefits of laptops and that schools have more pressing needs.

“I don’t think that it is the panacea for education that it is purported to be,” said Rep. Christina Baker, D-Bangor, a strong opponent of the plan.

The fate of the endowment remains up in air as the House and Senate try to reach common ground on the state budget. Both chambers have proposed that the amount earmarked for the laptops be cut back to help ease a revenue shortfall.

The laptop proposal was a revision of Gov. Angus King’s proposal last year to give a laptop to every seventh-grader. A task force reworked the plan so that the machines would be kept in the schools but could be checked out for home use.