Rebounding state budgets boost laptop plans

Every South Dakota high school student should have a laptop computer as part of a statewide effort to boost the use of technology in education, Gov. Mike Rounds told state lawmakers Dec. 6.

If the Republican governor’s $39 million proposal eventually is approved, South Dakota would join several other states–including Massachusetts, New Mexico, and Indiana–in gearing up to launch ambitious, one-to-one computing programs intended to help educators meet the challenges of the federal No Child Left Behind Act and equip students with the technical know-how necessary to succeed in the 21st century.

Such renewed interest in statewide one-to-one computing programs comes at a time when state budget scenarios are beginning to turn around. After a few years of budget deficits, the National Governors Association reported in February that governors in at least 24 states projected stronger-than-anticipated budgets through the end of 2005–and at least nine of these 24 made some mention of a spending surplus.

Budget concerns have stalled or curtailed ambitious school laptop programs in Maine and Michigan, two states that were at the forefront of the one-to-one computing movement only a few years ago.

But as fiscal conditions across the country continue to improve, odds are good that more state policy makers and educators will again begin looking seriously at the potential benefits of one-to-one computing programs in their schools.

In Massachusetts, Republican Gov. Mitt Romney has said publicly that he would like to get laptops into the hands of every student in his state. Romney’s interest in the concept intensified earlier this year when researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced they had developed a laptop that could sell for as little as $100 (see story:

The machines, which researchers plan to begin deploying in third-world countries within months, are scheduled to become available in the U.S. in the next two years, according to estimates provided by MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte, whose private foundation–One Laptop Per Child–plans to donate between 5 million and 15 million of the machines to children in Brazil, China, Egypt, Thailand, and South Africa.

Romney said he hopes to start buying the machines for all 500,000 middle- and high- school students in Massachusetts as soon as they become available.

In New Mexico, state education officials are pushing ahead with their Laptop Learning Initiative Pilot program. Launched in 2004, the initiative originally provided laptops to seventh-graders and their teachers at six middle schools across the state. The pilot, which lets students keep their laptops through high school, is seen by many as a precursor to an eventual statewide deployment–one that education department officials say hinges on how much money is provided by the legislature.

Last year, the state spent $4 million to expand the program to 27 schools, according to a report in The Albuquerque Tribune. In March, the state legislature reportedly approved an additional $1 million to grow the program further.

Indiana has taken a different approach to the concept of one-to-one computer access in its schools. Officials there are moving ahead with plans to buy a desktop computer for every high school student in the state, figuring this would be a less expensive solution than buying or leasing laptops. They hope to save even more money by purchasing machines running the open-source Linux operating system (see story:

In South Dakota, Gov. Rounds on Monday proposed using $13 million in state funds to help school districts buy or lease laptop computers for students in grades 9-12. Schools would provide $2 for every $1 provided by the state, which would bring the total to $39 million spent over several years to buy the laptops.

South Dakota led the nation in providing desktop computers and internet access in classrooms, so it should now use laptops to increase the integration of technology into the education system, Rounds said.

“South Dakota has really been a leader in providing access to the internet and wiring the schools,” he added. “Let’s not stop now.”

Rounds said a surprisingly strong economy will help provide money to boost spending on the state’s top priorities of educating students, protecting society, and providing medical care and other help to poor and disabled people.

Education spending would grow by $18.8 million for schools at the elementary, high school, technical, and university levels under Rounds’ proposal, while the rest of state government would get only a $1.2 million boost. After subtracting $6.1 million in state aid to schools that was not spent this year, total general fund spending would rise by $49 million next year, he said.

Statewide laptop initiatives in South Dakota, New Mexico, Massachusetts, and elsewhere all follow a similar project launched by former Maine Gov. Angus King in 2002. Maine, which credits itself as being the first state in the country to launch a full-scale student laptop initiative, has since deployed laptops to more than 34,000 seventh- and eighth-grade students and more than 3,000 teachers across the state.

Lawmakers there reportedly are considering extending the program into high schools. But despite high marks from teachers and increased enthusiasm on the part of students, the jury is still out on whether the technology has achieved its ultimate goal: helping boost student performance.

The same can be said for Michigan’s Freedom to Learn program. That project, which was unveiled amid great fanfare in 2003, originally was expected to provide as many as 40,000 laptops to sixth-graders within its first year, with plans to expand to all of the state’s 132,000 sixth-graders soon thereafter. But budget cuts and other limitations forced officials to revise those estimates. In July, just over 20,500 students and 1,200 teachers across Michigan had access to the machines, according to local news reports.


South Dakota Department of Education

Massachusetts Department of Education

New Mexico Public Education Department

Indiana Department of Education

Maine Department of Education

Michigan Department of Education

National Governor’s Association Report: “The Governors Speak 2005”

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