Michigan’s state budget office announced Feb. 20 it has signed a four-year, $68 million contract with Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) to provide thousands of laptop computers and other services to sixth graders across Michigan using federal funds.

The state Department of Management and Budget has been working on the contract since the Palo Alto, Calif.-based computer giant agreed in December to charge no more than $275 per student per year for the state’s “Freedom to Learn” program. HP also will provide technical support, insurance, and training under the program.

House Speaker Rick Johnson, a Republican from LeRoy, Mich., who first created the laptop grant program under the name “Learning Without Limits” as a pilot project in 2002, said he’s happy the effort is moving forward.

“We are ready to take the next step, together with HP, to offer even more students the opportunities that come through Freedom to Learn and our ability to reach kids through a one-to-one relationship with their teachers,” Johnson said in a news release.

Up to 44,000 students could receive laptops or other handheld devices in the program’s first year, according to the Michigan Virtual University, which is running the program with the state education department. Laptops and other technology could eventually go to all of Michigan’s 132,000 sixth graders under the program, it said.

Schools that have their applications approved will receive $250 per student in the first year of the four-year program, the Michigan Virtual University said.

The budget for the current fiscal year set aside $17 million in federal funding for the “Freedom to Learn” program. The $68 million HP contract is based on a projected $17 million in federal funding for each of its four years.

Federal funding for the program is limited to districts with a high poverty rate (greater than 13 percent) and at least one school that is failing to make adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, said Bruce Montgomery, vice president of the Michigan Virtual University and director of the Freedom to Learn initiative.

While state officials originally wanted to match federal funding with some $22 million of their own, Montgomery said the state’s fiscal crisis made that goal impossible this year.

George Warren, director of HP’s K-12 division, said the company’s package includes 450 lessons and projects in line with state curriculum standards, teacher professional development, and a centralized, statewide portal to give teachers, parents, and students the ability to work together on improving education.

At the end of the four-year lease, districts reportedly can purchase the equipment for $1 per laptop.

Though Warren acknowledges that $275 per student represents a remarkably low cost, he said HP was able to arrive at the figure thanks, in part, to participation from strategic partners such as Microsoft, Intel, and Classroom Connect. These companies, he said, agreed to contribute software, learning materials, and professional development services to the laptop program, which allowed HP to share some of the initial financial burden.

Warren said HP would be open to considering similar wide-scale deployments across other states, but the terms and price of each agreement would vary based on client need.

Despite the opportunity, a number of eligible districts said they would not apply for the program. Districts that qualify for funding still must pay $25 per student to participate, and some educators said they worried about hidden costs as well.

“Frankly, I can’t afford it, and I thought there were too many strings attached,” New Haven Superintendent James Avery told the Detroit Free Press for a March 6 story.

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