Some South Dakota educators, reacting to a three-year, $39 million proposal to provide laptop computers to all high school students in the state, say they’d rather make their own decisions about technology spending. In other states where similar initiatives have been implemented in the past, educators generally have become supporters of the laptop programs.

South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds, a Republican, unveiled the proposal in his budget address to the Legislature last month as part of his 2010 Education initiative. He proposed using $13 million in state funds to help school districts buy or lease laptop computers for students in grades 9-12.

Rounds has said he expects to pay less than $1,000 apiece for computers with three-year leases, software, and warranties. He said schools could continue the program later as the price decreases.

Providing funding for laptops would erase any disparity among districts in terms of technology in education, said Rick Melmer, state education secretary.

“Unless you give students the technology access beyond the school day, then you’re really not penetrating into an area where all kids can use the technology,” he said.

But some schools would like the money spent in other ways.

If schools have to pay two-thirds of the cost, it might be better just to give the state money to the schools for technology so they could spend it as they see fit, Brandon Valley Superintendent George Gulson said.

He said that if his district leased laptops for its 820 high school students, the school’s share would be more than $500,000. Brandon Valley spends about $300,000 a year upgrading its existing technology, the superintendent said.

Gulson said many school districts can’t afford big expenses and he’d rather see the money put into the state aid formula.

Lennox Superintendent Roger DeGroot said local school boards should decide how to spend the money. DeGroot said Rounds’ plan would make schools come up with a big amount of money–not only for computers but also for teacher training, software, and maintenance.

“We’d feel like we’d like to see that money put in the base,” he said. “We feel that it’s a local control issue. Give us the money. We can decide how to spend it.”

Garretson Superintendent Bob Arend said his school would not be ready to jump at the governor’s offer.

“We just bought some [laptops] last year. We just upgraded a lab last year. The timing is not good for us,” Arend said, adding that he would prefer it if the state paid more of the cost.

“I’d say ‘no’ this first year,” he said.

Sioux Falls school officials have not decided their level of interest in the governor’s plan, according to Ann Smith, library and technology coordinator.

“One of the things we believe in strongly is that instruction should drive what we want,” Smith said.

In the Hanson School District, state money for laptops might be good timing. This year, the high school gave laptops to about 50 juniors and seniors and is considering adding freshmen and sophomores, said Superintendent Jeff Danielsen.

“We have already kind of made that leap,” he said. Getting a dollar for every two the school spends would help stretch Hanson’s technology budget, he added.

Hanson modeled its program after Watertown’s, which is in the third year of handing out laptops to all 1,270 of its high school students. State education secretary Melmer was Watertown’s superintendent when the laptop program began.

Laptops are a good tool if correctly used, said Jared Langendorfer, a Watertown High School junior.

“They’re also a great benefit as far as the teaching is concerned,” he said. “It really makes the time go by much faster and makes it more exciting for everyone involved.”

The mixed reaction in South Dakota mirrors that in Michigan when former state House Speaker Rick Johnson first proposed that state’s “Freedom to Learn” initiative, which aimed to give all Michigan sixth-graders a laptop computer (see story: Now, more than two years later, many Michigan educators say they can’t imagine classes without the machines–and they’re worried a new round of budget cuts could severely curtail the program.

As of last fall, the program–which received nearly $40 million in state and federal funding in its first two years–provided laptop computers and technical assistance to nearly 21,000 students and 1,200 teachers in 95 Michigan school districts, according to the state education department’s web site.

But the elimination of all but a few million dollars in federal funding for 2006 will prevent the program from expanding to other districts in the state, said Bruce Montgomery, executive director of the Freedom to Learn program.

Officials in Maine are moving in the opposite direction with their pioneering, statewide laptop computer program: There, the Maine Department of Education is making plans to continue its program in middle schools beyond the original four-year contract.

This month, the department will put the program out to bid for another four-year proposal. If there is no winning bid, then the state would simply extend the current lease agreement for another year, said Maine Education Commissioner Susan Gendron.

“We think it’s a wiser investment to do the replacement,” Gendron said. “Some of the laptops are now five years old.”

It would cost the state about $8 million to continue its current contract with Apple Computer. It would cost about $10 million to sign a similar agreement for a year but replace all 34,000 laptops with new machines.

Gendron included the latter figure for laptops in her $1.8 billion education budget presented last month to the state Board of Education.

The budget requires legislative approval, but Gendron is optimistic enough that she detailed her plans in late December in a letter to superintendents. When a new contract is awarded, she told them, they’ll be able to buy their old laptops for $48 each.

Maine’s first-in-the-nation laptop program, which put Apple iBooks in the hands seventh- and eighth-graders and teachers, has been lauded as a success. The $37 million contract with Apple ends in June.

“It struck a cord globally,” said Jeff Mao, education technology coordinator for the state education department. “We’re doing exactly the work we need to be doing.”

Despite some problems, such as dropped and broken computers and dead batteries, the state is looking for ways to ensure that the program is expanded into the state’s public high schools, officials say.


South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds

Michigan Department of Education

Maine Learning Technology Initiative