The nation’s first large-scale school laptop program appears headed for expansion, regardless of whether state lawmakers vote to fund the initiative next year.

Maine’s education commissioner has obtained assurances from at least 47 superintendents that they’re ready to press forward with laptops in high schools this fall, giving her confidence that a deal can be struck with Apple Computer.

Susan Gendron said the commitments bring her closer to the minimum level of 8,400 students and teachers necessary for Apple to lease laptops to the state for $300 apiece per year, with training and other perks included.

A spokesman for Gov. John Baldacci said the show of support will bolster the governor’s case as he goes before the state Legislature to press for full implementation of the laptop program in all 119 high schools.

“I’m very optimistic that we can move forward,” Gendron said June 16 from Bar Harbor, where she was meeting with superintendents.

Maine’s pioneering program to give laptop computers to all seventh- and eighth-graders was found to have a positive impact on student achievement in early evaluations. (See “Maine laptop program gets high marks in mid-year survey,” .) It inspired a similar effort by Michigan to give all sixth-graders in that state a laptop, and other states also are considering such programs.

For a while, however, it seemed that Maine’s statewide experiment with laptop computers would end in the seventh and eighth grades after lawmakers adjourned without providing funding to expand the program into high schools.

As it stood, students who’d grown accustomed to having laptops in middle schools would have to return to the reality of pencil and paper upon their arrival in the ninth grade this fall.

But the state Education Department has been scrambling to find a way to move the laptops into at least some high schools this fall.

The arrangement the Education Department came up with involves signing up schools to meet Apple’s minimum level of participation.

School districts could apply for money from a state renovation fund to install wireless networks for the laptops, and Gendron has suggested tapping federal grants as a way for school districts to avoid out-of-pocket costs this year.

The ultimate goal is for Baldacci to go back to the Legislature in January and use the endorsement from superintendents to press for full funding of laptops in all public high schools in 2005-06.

Gendron, who believes the program sets Maine apart from other states, is eager to make that argument to lawmakers.

“This is a key to transformational change in our schools, and it’s a direct tie to the economic future of Maine. And if we’re going to continue to lead the country, then it’s essential to meet our vision of having a highly educated work force. The technology is the underpinning of all of that,” she said.

Maine’s four-year program provided Apple iBook computers to more than 30,000 seventh- and eighth-graders in all 241 public middle schools across the state in two phases in 2002 and 2003.

It has received high marks from teachers, students, and parents but comes at a time of tight budgets.

Baldacci will press for laptop funding even as he pushes to balance the budget and enact spending reforms next year, when lawmakers will be facing a $1 billion shortfall, said spokesman Lee Umphrey.

“We need to invest in people, and laptops have proven to be a tool to upgrade the skills … of our young people,” he said.

The proposed four-year lease program that the state is pursuing for high schools would provide the same low rate negotiated for middle schools. But there’s no guarantee of state funding.

Some school districts are moving forward with a lease-purchase agreement independent of the state efforts. Those schools could opt into the state rental program at no charge.

At it stands, the 11th-hour efforts will come too late to get the wireless networks and computers in place by Labor Day. But Gendron is optimistic that laptops could be delivered to participating school districts by mid-October.

Links:

Maine Learning Technology Initiative