The Maine Department of Education has signed a four-year, $37.2 million contract with Apple to supply the technology, training, and support for Maine’s groundbreaking initiative that will equip every seventh and eighth grade public school student and teacher in the state with one-to-one access to wireless notebook computers and the internet.

The agreement, inked on December 28, said teachers could begin receiving their computers within the coming weeks. The contract is believed to be the largest single purchase ever of laptops for education.

Education Commissioner J. Duke Albanese called the occasion “truly historic,” saying this is the first initiative of its kind attempted by any state.

“This program will not just diminish the digital divide, it will eliminate it for middle school students here in Maine,” he said. “Apple has an impressive track record in understanding and meeting the needs of educators in using technology to transform teaching and learning.”

The deal will equip 33,000 students and 3,000 teachers with iBook notebook computers, wireless networks, training, and technical support in an effort to transform teaching and learning through the Maine Learning Technology Initiative.

Apple announced a similar deal last year in Henrico County, Va., but it fell far short of the Maine deployment in terms of hardware, breadth of services, and dollars.

In May school officials in Henrico County signed a deal leasing 23,000 Apple iBook laptops for all middle and high school students and teachers as part of a four-year, $18.5 million technology initiative.

In addition to the iBook hardware, Maine’s initiative will include an ambitious program of professional development for teachers in the state’s 241 middle schools to assure the effective use of the new technology, as well as extensive, continuing technical support.

Software included in the multimillion dollar deal are AppleWorks, internet browsers, iMovie, FirstClass curriculum software, Adobe Acrobat Reader, iTunes, QuickTime, iTools, Palm Desktop, Microsoft Outlook Express, and antivirus protection software.

Network infrastructure includes a wireless network in each seventh and eighth grade public school, consisting of wireless access points and a switch, a connection to central servers that provide up to 250 megabytes of data storage, data protection and file backup services, and access to FirstClass curriculum software.

Content filtering is not part of the Maine agreement, but it is likely to be offered as part of the internet service provided by the Maine School and Library Network. The laptops will have the ability to access both data storage and the internet through a built-in modem or Ethernet port.

As for support and maintenance, the standard hardware warranty will be backed by a four-year AppleCare Protection Plan. Help desk support, consisting of a toll-free number with an exclusive extension dedicated to schools involved in the learning initiative, will be provided for all users. The terms of the agreement state that students will not be without a device for more than one school day.

Maine Gov. Angus King lauded the completion of the deal, praising negotiators on both sides for creating a “unique collaboration that will take teaching and learning into the digital age, giving Maine students access to an unparalleled richness of learning opportunities and teachers the powerful tools to facilitate them.”

King also noted that Apple’s deep commitment to Maine’s first-in-the-nation venture would provide educational advantages that would yield considerable value for the state’s money.

The state’s selection team reviewed bids against pre-established criteria, including observation of existing school deployments by the top finalists.

Albanese said Maine’s request for proposals from bidders and the subsequent scoring process focused on the educational value of the solutions, and Apple’s overall solution was best crafted to support the work that will take place in the state’s classrooms.

The Apple deal completes an initiative started by Gov. King in 2000 to put portable computers in the hands of each of the state’s roughly 17,000 seventh graders, regardless of whether they have one at home.

In March 2001 a Maine task force on computer technology recommended that the state use a $50 million fund to provide laptops to students. But during the session that ended in June 2001, legislators slashed the endowment from $50 million to $30 million, and since that time the state’s far-reaching school computer initiative has generated a great deal of debate.

“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 less fortunate students get computers, however.

“The choice of laptops over school renovations is something I can’t fathom,” said Rep. Elizabeth Townsend, D-Portland. Townsend, who co-chairs the state Appropriations Committee, says needed renovations in schools across the state add up to more than $100 million. King assured legislators the laptops would not come at the expense of much-needed school renovations.

Despite protests, the Maine learning technology plan approved by the legislature last spring dictates that all seventh grade students and teachers will be equipped with laptops in the fall of 2002, and both seventh and eighth grades will be equipped the following year. The schools themselves will own the computers and will distribute them to students.

The initial middle school phase is part of a larger plan that would extend one-to-one technology access to all Maine high schools.

Albanese said the contract will be paid from the $30 million Maine Learning Technology Endowment already appropriated by the legislature, and from the Maine School and Library Network.

He indicated that the King administration would announce that some funds from the endowment will be used to balance Maine’s current state budget deficit, but that the remaining funds would be enough to fully support the contract commitment made to Apple.

In a separate development, administrators from some private and religious schools in the state are upset that their students won’t be receiving Apple iBook computers like students in the public schools.

The Maine Department of Education said Roman Catholic schools will not get computers and private schools will receive them only when the state pays for students to attend. The latter happens when a town has no public school of its own.

“Private means private. We don’t regulate them, we don’t fund them,” said Yellow Light Breen, a spokesman for the department.

Marc Mutty, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese in Portland, said he’s disappointed the state isn’t including diocesan schools.

“It doesn’t seem appropriate. It doesn’t seem the best use of those funds to limit it only to public school. Our kids don’t count?” Mutty said, adding that the diocese, which operates 19 schools in Maine, might try to get lawmakers to intervene on its behalf.

The state is looking into acquiring deep discounts on the Apple laptops for private schools, religious schools, and educators who are not included in the state’s plan, Breen said.

“At this point, there aren’t extra funds to reach beyond the 36,000 [public school] students and teachers,” Breen said.

Related links:
Maine Department of Education’s Apple Status page
http://www.state.me.us/mlte/AppleStatus.htm

Apple Computer, Inc.
http://www.apple.com