The low-cost XO laptop computer that aims to revolutionize education worldwide could be coming to Birmingham, Ala., students for about the same low cost that officials in developing nations must pay, if a deal reported to be in negotiations goes through.

The Birmingham News reported last month that more than 15,000 children in Birmingham city schools would receive an XO laptop under a tentative agreement new mayor Larry Langford has reached with the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) foundation, the organization behind the initiative. The computers would be given to every child in grades 1-8 and would cost about $3 million, or roughly $200 apiece.

If reached, the deal would mark a significant development in OLPC’s campaign to transform instruction through the use of technology, because it would open the door for other North American cities to participate. The effort previously had targeted students in developing nations such as Uruguay, Thailand, and Brazil.

Until now, it was believed the only way U.S. residents could get their hands on XO machines was through OLPC’s “Give One, Get One” program. This limited-time offer—in which participants agree to pay $399 for the laptop, with the extra cost funding a machine for a child in a developing nation—recently was extended until Dec. 31.

Perhaps that’s why OLPC and Birmingham officials have since pulled back from discussing their own negotiations, after Langford associate John Katopodis told the Birmingham News that a deal appeared to be imminent.

“Over 15,000 children will be receiving their own personal laptops,” Katopodis, who was negotiating with OLPC on Langford’s behalf, told the city newspaper for a Nov. 13 story. “We believe providing these children with the tools to catch up will give them a head start in life, because technology is such an integral part of learning.”

OLPC spokeswoman Jackie Lustig confirmed for the Birmingham News that talks were under way with city officials. When an eSchool News reporter asked Lustig for more details, however, she had this to say: “We have no comment. It is unfortunate that this information was released before any deal was finalized.”

The laptop program is one of several projects that Langford reportedly has proposed to revitalize the city of Birmingham. Other proposed projects include a new mass transit system, a domed stadium, a college scholarship program, and new streets and sidewalks.

Langford said the $3 million needed to buy the laptops would come from private-sector donations as well as the city budget.

Birmingham schools Superintendent Stan Sims told the city’s newspaper that the proposed laptop deal “is huge … It gives our students a chance to be competitive.”

It’s unclear whether premature coverage of the deal will have an impact on negotiations. According to a report in the Birmingham Weekly, the leaking of Langford’s economic revitalization plan has caused tension between the new mayor and the city board.

During a press conference held Nov. 23, Langford accused the city council of revealing the plan without his approval and said they’d “lost his trust.”

Copies of the plan reportedly were given to the city council and were marked “Personal and Confidential. Not for Distribution,” and members were asked to vote on the proposals by Nov. 21. However, according to WRBC TV Channel 3—a local Birmingham station—city council members still need time to decide whether mass distribution of XO laptops to the city’s students is a good idea.

Though city council president Carole Smitherman said the relatively cheap cost of the laptops is a minimal amount to pay for computer technology, as of press time she reportedly needed more information before she could reach a decision.

Langford and Katopodis have teamed up in the past to provide a computer program for children, the Birmingham News reports. In 2000, with HealthSouth founder Richard Scrushy, both Langford and Katopodis formed Computer Help for Kids, a nonprofit organization to refurbish donated computers and give them to needy students.

The Internal Revenue Service reportedly has subpoenaed Jefferson County and the city of Fairfield, Ala., for checks written to the group. Langford has said he has done nothing wrong and has called the investigation politically motivated.

Assistant Editor Meris Stansbury contributed to this report.

Links:

One Laptop Per Child

City of Birmingham, Alabama