Despite inking a four-year, $37.2 million contract with Apple Computer in December, Maine education officials face the possibility that Gov. Angus King’s ambitious plan to give every seventh and eighth grader in the state a laptop will be targeted for budget cuts.

State education officials on Jan. 23 listed the first nine schools that will get laptops this spring. But legislative leaders from both parties say the administration is moving too quickly, as the state faces a $250 million revenue shortfall that threatens to force cuts in a Medicaid and other human-needs programs.

“In the face of the cuts the Legislature is going to have to consider in health care and other essential programs, you had better believe that the laptop fund is on the table,” said House GOP Leader Joe Bruno of Raymond, Me.

Assistant Senate Democratic Leader Sharon Treat, an early skeptic of the independent governor’s plan who later served on a panel that repackaged it, agreed with Bruno.

“I don’t think there’s very much support anywhere in the Legislature to have a big pot of money to draw on just for this program,” said Treat, of Gardiner, Me.

The laptop program, which was first envisioned when the state was rolling in surpluses, is supposed to spread to 241 schools next the fall. In two years, 33,000 middle school students are to have access to computers, which will be kept in schools. Some schools might allow them to be checked out like library books.

Teachers in each of the nine pilot schools will receive support and professional development to help them use the new computers effectively, Education Commissioner J. Duke Albanese said.

Other schools may visit the demonstration schools for an average of one day per week so the schools can share their experiences about classroom technology, the commissioner said.

A teacher selected from each demonstration school will receive a $10,000 stipend to work with other teachers and promote and focus the project. The stipends come from a one-year, $1 million grant received by the state last fall from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Funding for the laptop program itself is to come from the $30 million remaining from what had been designed as an endowment created by the state for the laptop program.

Initially, $50 million was set aside by the state, which was to seek $15 million in matching funds from private donors. The program was cut last year amid fiscal pressures facing the Legislature.

With revenues continuing to fall short of what is needed to run the state, King offered earlier this year to cut another $5 million from the technology fund.

Treat said the Legislature must choose between two difficult alternatives for the future of the laptop program: Fund it on an annual basis, or cut it altogether.

“Something that’s wise to do when you have a budget surplus has to be looked at differently when there’s a budget deficit,” said Treat, citing prospects of cutting services to nursing home patients, special-needs children, and others.

Bruno said the administration’s announcement of the nine demonstration schools should have been delayed, given the uncertainty of laptop funding.

Albanese, calling Maine’s laptop initiative “the most ambitious program of its kind in the world,” predicted that the high-tech program will be viewed differently once the demonstration sites are up and running.

“Last year, when Piscataquis Community Middle School led the state by going forward on its own with a laptop program, it completely shifted the debate by making the impact of computers real to both educators and policy makers,” Albanese said.

“It is still true that seeing—and experiencing, and practicing—will be believing for our teachers and students,” the commissioner said in his announcement.

The contract with Apple has a clause that allows the state to back out if funding falls short. The state invoked such a clause after hiring a California company to build seven regional auto-emission testing centers and then pulling the plug on the entire project in 1995.

That experience has led education officials to proceed with caution, even as they make plans to expand the program.

“I won’t count it as done until I see the laptops delivered to the classrooms,” King told the Associated Press in January.

Related links:
Maine Learning Technology Initiative
http://www.state.me.us/mlte