Maine Gov. Angus King’s initiative to put a laptop computer in the hands of every middle school student got under way this fall, despite budget woes that once threatened to derail the program before it started.

King heralded the arrival of the 17,000 laptops at 239 schools Sept. 5 while urging students to take care of the new computers and not to misuse them.

At Shapleigh Middle School in Kittery, he warned students that they would be under scrutiny as the project unfolds. Maine is the first in the nation to equip students statewide with laptop computers.

“The whole world is watching you. They’re watching. They’re watching Maine. They’re watching Shapleigh Middle School,” King, who sported a tie with a computer motif, said at a school assembly.

The distribution of laptops to seventh-graders throughout the state marks the first phase of the project. Next fall, all seventh- and eighth-graders in Maine public schools will have laptops.

The ambitious program was conceived in December 1999, when the state was enjoying a budget surplus.

The state now faces a revenue shortfall pegged at about $240 million, and the program has faced criticism from lawmakers and citizens alike who would prefer that the money be put to other uses.

The governor referred to skeptics while talking to students: “There are a lot of people who think this is not a hot idea. They think I’m nuts,” he said.

He urged the youngsters to prove the naysayers wrong by being careful with the Apple iBook computers and staying out of trouble, which could be just a “couple of clicks” away on the internet.

The students in Janet Reynolds’ classroom received their computers the day before King’s visit. On Sept. 5, Reynolds gave them instructions on keeping a computer journal. Some students were already at ease, while others pecked away one finger at a time and had more questions.

King, who will leave office in January because of term limits, said he hoped the program eventually would be extended to other grade levels. He said he believes the program will prove its worth, but it’s not a sure thing.

“This is a risk for me, you know. If this doesn’t work, it’s going to be known in 25 years as King’s Folly,” he said.

The state plans eventually to supply 36,000 laptops to students and teachers under a $37.2 million contract with Apple Computer. Apple is providing the computers, the wireless networking, training, and warranties.

But prospects for continued funding are uncertain.

King initially hoped to establish a $50 million endowment to keep the program running indefinitely. But that fund has been shrinking as the state’s budget shortfall grows.

The latest proposed cut would leave no more than $16 million, enough to pay for up to three years of the four-year contract, according to Yellow Light Breen, a spokesman for the state Education Department.

To secure funding beyond that point, the program will have to rely on year-to year appropriations, said Tony Sprague, a spokesman for the governor’s office.

“What the program needs to do now is prove its merits,” said Sprague. “We feel confident it will do that.”

Maine hopes to avoid the pitfalls seen in Virginia’s Henrico County, where a few students downloaded pornography and tried to hack school networks to change grades when laptops debuted there last year.

Henrico is paying $18.5 million over four years to lease laptops from Apple. Computers were issued to 11,000 high school students there last year. About 23,000 iBooks are being deployed in Henrico this academic year, and officials say they have added security features to the machines to cut down on inappropriate uses.

In Maine, King said the laptop money could have gone to other purposes, such as school construction projects, but he believed that the technology initiative would have the most impact on education.

The aim of the program, he said, was to give Maine students “the keys to the 21st century.”

Links:

Maine Learning Technology Initiative
http://www.mainelearns.org

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

Henrico County Public Schools
http://www,henrico.k12.va.us