Software giant Microsoft Corp. has announced settlements of class-action lawsuits in Florida and Montana that—if approved—would allow the neediest schools in those states to buy hardware, software, and technology professional development services from any vendor.

Needy schools eventually would benefit, but the settlements mainly would affect consumers. Microsoft said it would provide up to $202 million in vouchers for Florida residents and up to $12.3 million in vouchers for Montana residents to buy computers and related products. If any of these vouchers go unclaimed, the company said, Microsoft would donate half of the unclaimed vouchers to the states’ public schools.

The settlements resolve lawsuits claiming Microsoft violated state laws against unfair trade practices in the way it sold operating system and applications software.

Florida residents who purchased the Microsoft operating system, productivity suite, spreadsheet, or word processing software between Nov. 16, 1995, and Dec. 31, 2002—and Montana residents who purchased any of these products between March 28, 1996, and Aug. 31, 2002—would be eligible for vouchers to purchase computer hardware and software from any manufacturer, including systems running on the Macintosh platform from rival Apple Computer.

To keep the focus on underserved students, only public K-12 schools where 50 percent or more of the student body participate in the free or reduced-price lunch program would be eligible for unclaimed vouchers. Microsoft didn’t say when the vouchers would expire if not used.

Despite these limitations, Microsoft estimated the deals would reach more than 695,000 students in more than 1,600 schools and 40 districts in Florida—roughly one-third of all students in that state—and more than 38,000 students in 325 schools in Montana.

Bill Piotrowski, executive director of technology and information services for Leon District Schools in Tallahassee, Fla., said the pending settlement is “great news for schools all across Florida.”

“Given the tough budget environment, the timing is particularly helpful,” he said in a statement. “This program will provide badly needed resources for the schools that need it most and help bridge the digital divide for those students.”

The deals are similar to a class-action settlement Microsoft reached with California in January. There, schools will be able to claim two-thirds of any unclaimed portion of the $1.1 billion in technology vouchers that state officials negotiated with the company.

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