Yielding to critics who called the proposed laptop purchase plan too expensive, school district leaders in Cobb County, Ga., have agreed to cut the program by more than half–from an initial $69.9 million to $25 million for the first phase of the program. The Cobb County schools have an operating budget of more than $1 billion per year.

Originally, school district leaders in Cobb County, Ga., wanted to provide a laptop computer to every middle and high school student in the district, which would have made it the largest one-to-one computing initiative in the nation (see “$69.9 million iBook deal on tap in Ga.“). On April 13, however, they agreed to limit the initial rollout to a pilot that includes some 9,000 high school students and every teacher in the district. Officials say they will wait and see how the program progresses before deciding whether to give the machines to all 31,000 high school students.

Ultimately, the goal is to provide laptops to more than 63,000 middle and high school students and teachers. But district spokesman Jay Dillon said officials opted to “slow down” that process in order to provide “proof of concept” before moving forward with a larger deployment.

The program, called Power to Learn, is set to roll out in three phases. The school board “approved the concept for the first phase of the program” at its April 13 meeting, district spokesman Doug Goodwin said. “The board did not vote on the contract.”

A statement on the district’s web site said the contract with Apple Computer to lease iBook laptops is expected to be finalized, reviewed, and approved in the next few weeks. The district will issue a separate request for proposals to establish wireless connectivity at all Cobb County schools, providing the information and communication access necessary for Power to Learn to be effective, officials said.

Under the revised plan, all teachers in the district would get laptops this year. Current computer connections at the district’s high schools would be revamped, and as many as four schools would become test sites for the laptop plan. The vast majority of high school students would not get laptops sooner than next year.

In another move intended to reduce the cost of the program, board members stipulated a four-year lease instead of three years, bringing the total estimated cost of Phase One of the project to around $25 million.

The program’s architect and one of its chief supporters, Superintendent Joe Redden, said supplying students with computers is a natural move in a world in which many teens, and even younger students, already use computers in their everyday lives.

“Kids learn differently today,” he said. “They multitask; they are already used to being engaged on many different levels, and we need to come apace with that in public education and provide that environment.”

Redden also says putting computers in the hands of students–particularly those who couldn’t otherwise afford them–is a step toward eliminating the “digital divide” that threatens to hold some students back in a world of rapidly evolving technology.

Many details of the proposal have yet to be worked out. Among them: whether students would be allowed to take the computers home every night and how the machines would be insured in case of damage or theft. In a conversation with eSchool News in February, however, Redden said community business leaders already had pledged to pay the insurance premiums on laptops provided to students lacking sufficient family resources.

Districts in Maine, Michigan, Texas, Virginia, and dozens of other places already are providing laptops to students. Analysts say the cost of technology is blocking more widespread laptop adoptions.

Cost proved to be the primary obstacle in Cobb County–one that forced Redden and other proponents of the program to redraw their original blueprint.

“It’s too much taxpayer money that they do not have the taxpayers’ permission to use,” said state Rep. Judy Manning, a Marietta Republican who has been outspoken in her criticism of the plan.

Manning says the money for the laptop plan came from a sales tax that technically allows for technology spending, but that most voters thought would go toward routine maintenance at schools in the county just north of Atlanta.

“I don’t think the school board has really heeded what I hear from my constituents as a real concern,” Manning said.

Supporters acknowledge that the plan would require a major financial investment over several years. But they say the cost would be just a fraction of the district’s $75 million annual technology budget in one of the four largest counties in the state.

“It’s a big undertaking, and that’s a little bit scary to a lot of people,” Redden said. “But our budget every year is a little over $1 billion. The amount of money you would spend on this is a relatively small percentage of the budget.”

Supporters hope it’s a first step toward a much-needed change in how students are taught.

“This is not a futuristic tool; this is today’s tool,” said school board Chairwoman Kathie Johnstone. “I think we’re going to think it’s humorous 10 years from now that this was even a discussion.”

Links:

Cobb County School District
http://www.cobb.k12.ga.us