Lawmakers face flap over iPods-in-classrooms idea

An idea to give Michigan students an iPod or other MP3 player as a learning tool has been met with sharp criticism in a state that is facing a budget shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Michigan House Democrats tried to derail the distracting controversy April 12, saying a statement made the previous week about providing iPods for Michigan students had been misconstrued and was diverting focus from the state’s budget crisis.

Democrats, at least for now, say they aren’t considering providing an iPod or MP3 player for Michigan students. House Speaker Andy Dillon, D-Redford, said the initiative can’t be pursued until the state has settled its budget problems.

The iPod idea first surfaced in early April during a broad, budget-related press conference held by House Democrats. Rep. Matt Gillard, D-Alpena and chairman of the House subcommittee overseeing K-12 school budgets, discussed a $38 million "21st Century Learning Environments" plan. He also pulled out an iPod and said "we want this in the hands of every student in the state of Michigan."

Rep. Tim Melton, D-Auburn Hills, said there is no plan to provide iPods for Michigan students and there never was one. He said much of the $38 million would go toward professional development for teachers, which Gillard also mentioned in the press conference.

"This thing has spun completely out of control," Melton said April 12. "We take responsibility for a piece of that."

But Melton said Democrats, including Dillon, were disappointed the iPod issue came to dominate media coverage about the broad budget ideas discussed last week.

Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis said Melton’s comments "failed to put to rest the most serious concerns Michigan citizens have about this proposal."

Apple Inc., maker of the iPod, at least partly paid for Dillon, Melton, and Gillard to visit its California headquarters earlier this year. On April 12, Melton said the lawmakers will pay the price of that trip–$1,702 each–out of their own pockets.

Democrats said the trip wasn’t much different from those taken to Apple when Republicans were in charge of the state House. Those trips, in 2002 and 2003, came after then-House Speaker Rick Johnson, a Republican, started working on a program that provided laptop computers to some Michigan students.

The laptop program, called Freedom to Learn, eventually ended up using computers provided by Hewlett-Packard Co. The state’s budget problems essentially caused a halt to the program before it got beyond the pilot stage.

Johnson, now a lobbyist with Fraser Consulting, appeared with Melton at the April 12 press conference. Both Democrats and Johnson said the state should be committed to improving technology in Michigan classrooms.

Among educators, reaction to the iPod idea has been mixed.

"This is a case of legislators trying to do a nice thing for educators but not having a clue about what we’re trying to get accomplished on a day-to-day basis," said Jon Felske, superintendent of Wyoming Public Schools outside Grand Rapids.

Lawmakers instead should give schools money for new labs, because more high school students will be taking chemistry to meet Michigan‘s new graduation requirements, Felske said.

Paul Pominville, director of technology for Michigan‘s Howell Public Schools, had a different take, although he worried how thousands of the portable storage devices would be kept from being stolen, lost, or broken. He said teachers have approached him about doing podcasts and recording lessons, but the district doesn’t have the money.

"It would open up a different way of teaching," Pominville said, noting that Apple’s iTunes online store has free educational audio and video content for students. "Kids will love it. This is what they use all the time."

Schools usually require students to turn off music-listening devices in the classroom.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan, sensing the proposal could be in trouble, on April 11 said the initiative is much broader than buying devices.

"We don’t want this controversy to derail what is a good thing," Flanagan said in a statement. "We are adding education technology to the high graduation requirements and into the proposed revisions to the state’s teacher preparation programs. Schools, teachers, and students all need to embrace this emerging way to learn."

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