Thousands of Maine students will receive free home internet access for laptop computers assigned by their schools, thanks to about $5 million worth of cash and in-kind donations, departing Gov. Angus King announced Jan. 2.

King, the leading proponent of the first statewide program to provide a laptop computer for every middle school student, said he will “put my money where my mouth is” and contribute $100,000 of the total himself.

About 18,000 laptops were delivered in September to seventh-graders and teachers in 239 Maine schools, and another 18,000 will be delivered next year under the state’s three-year contract with Apple Computer.

About half of the schools let students take their computers home for research, but those without internet access are at a disadvantage, King said.

Internet access at home no longer will be an issue after this spring and next fall, however, when seventh- and eighth-graders who qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches will become eligible for free home internet hookups. About 5,000 students will be covered.

“The laptops help to open vast new horizons for our students, and now they will no longer be limited to using these resources during the school day,” King said. “The only limit will be the student’s imagination and desire to learn.”

King, who left office Jan. 8, said the laptop program has proven to have a positive effect on course content, student interest, and discipline. “I am 100-percent more committed to it than I was a year ago,” he said. “Now we don’t have to argue whether it works. All you have to do is go and see it for yourself.”

Cash donations adding up to $850,000 will help to cover the costs of making the hookups. Besides King—a millionaire whose annual gubernatorial salary was $70,000—donors include the Lunder Foundation of Maine and San Francisco-based Osher Foundation, which are kicking in $375,000 each.

Verizon of Maine and Great Works Internet of Biddeford, Maine’s largest internet service provider, will allow the use of their systems to provide home service to eligible students. The University of Maine will be a partner in the system, helping to provide filtering and other support services.

Maine’s laptop initiative, first announced by King in March 2000 amid widespread skepticism by legislators and others, was designed as an endowment that would stand on its own after an initial $50 million outlay of public money.

But as state funds got more scarce, funding was scaled back, and the program now needs periodic legislative appropriations. Still, it has drawn international interest for its vision of making one-to-one computing a reality.