Birmingham, Ala., has taken another step closer to becoming the first entity in the United States to purchase $200 laptop computers from the nonprofit One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Foundation.

Birmingham’s city council has approved a $3.5 million plan to provide schoolchildren with 15,000 low-cost laptops produced by foundation, which aims to spread laptops to poor children in developing countries.

OLPC says the deal marks the first time a U.S. city has agreed to buy the machines, which also are headed to such countries as Peru, Mongolia, Rwanda, Thailand, Brazil, and Mexico.

Birmingham’s school board still must agree to the deal, and some members have reservations. They want more evidence that computers designed for the African bush or the mountains of South America would be a good fit for an American city.

Reviews of the foundation’s green-and-white “XO” laptops have been mixed, with praise for their simplicity, ruggedness, and low price but complaints that U.S. children might be turned off by the machines’ particular configuration. The user interface is built on the Linux operating system rather than the more familiar Windows.

In hopes of getting past such objections, the Birmingham city council on March 4 agreed to spend $3 million buying machines from Cambridge, Mass.-based OLPC and to give the city’s schools $500,000 to sort out technical issues. A laptop will be available for every child in grades one through eight under the plan.

Mayor Larry Langford, who pushed for bringing XOs to Birmingham and hopes to see them distributed by the fall, said the machines will give many inner-city children their first access to a computer.

About 80 percent of the school system’s 28,000 students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and the schools are dealing with declining enrollment and funding shortages. The board recently voted to close 16 of the city’s 65 schools.

Birmingham school board member Virginia S. Volker likes the idea of laptops for students. But she said Langford didn’t think through the plan before committing millions of tax dollars to pay for the machines.

Birmingham schools lack wireless networks needed to get the laptops online, she said, and the district doesn’t have enough technology workers to train teachers, much less students, to use the computers.

“Thinking of public money, I am very reluctant to make a commitment on this until we are sure we can afford it,” Volker said.

At a recent Birmingham schools technology committee meeting, both Joanne Stephens, director of instructional technology, and Darryl Burroughs, director of information technology, said the computers wouldn’t work with the district’s infrastructure without major modifications, the Birmingham News reported.

Stephens said she has a firm plan in place only for Glen Iris Elementary School, which would be used as a pilot for the laptop program. The school system is expected to receive 1,000 laptop computers April 15.

But the school board first must vote whether to accept the computers. School officials will meet March 11 to discuss the program further, and the board is set to vote March 25.

eSchool News first reported Birmingham’s interest in XO laptops Dec. 3, after a Langford associate had leaked word to the Birmingham News that a deal between the city and OLPC appeared to be imminent. But OLPC, which was in the midst of a “Buy One, Get One” campaign to sell the computers in the United States, would not comment at the time.

Links:

City of Birmingham

One Laptop Per Child Foundation