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March 3, 2000

A Governor Would Give Every Student a Laptop


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    By THE NEW YORK TIMES

    BOSTON, March 2 -- Gov. Angus King of Maine announced a plan today to give every seventh grader in the state a laptop computer, to use at school or at home.

    Under the plan, the first such statewide initiative, about 17,000 students a year would receive computers as well as Internet service, beginning in fall 2002. Within six years, all Maine students above the sixth grade would have laptops that would be theirs to keep.

    The governor said his goal was to bridge the "digital divide" between students who have computers at home and those who do not.

    "Most schools in America have a computer lab," Mr. King said. "The problem is the computer lab is down the hall and once a week. I want Maine to have the most digitally literate society on earth."

    But the $65 million plan, part of the governor's revised budget proposal for the two years ending June 30, 2001, immediately met with skepticism from members of the Legislature, many of whom said they saw far more pressing needs in Maine's education system.

    "We do know there is a great need for school construction and renovation, one-time needs that we know are out there," said Senator Michael H. Michaud, a Democrat who is co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee that must review the financing request.

    Maine is facing a $200 million backlog of school repair projects. Just last week, the Education Committee recommended that the state increase it contribution to local education by $44 million.

    Representative Elizabeth Townsend, also a Democrat and co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, called it a "flashy and fun" proposal, but one that had little chance of winning approval in the Legislature.

    "We hear day after day from people who have buckets in their school buildings to catch the rain," Ms. Townsend said. "When I go door to door and ask people about their concerns, nobody has ever said to me: 'My seventh grader doesn't have a laptop. Would you fix that?' "

    Yet Governor King, an independent, said that he had had plenty of positive response from educators as well as members of the Legislature, which Democrats control, and that he had not been put off by initial skepticism.

    "This is a bold plan, and if it was something that everyone would immediately say yes to, it would have been done a long time ago," he said.

    His proposal breaks ground in other ways, including how it would be financed. He suggests that $50 million from the state's unallocated budget surplus be put in a permanent endowment, along with $15 million in matching funds from federal and private sources. The annual interest on the fund would pay for the computers, estimated to cost about $500 for each student.

    "I cannot think of a precedent of this in state government, to set up a foundation with state money," said Senator Mark W. Lawrence, a Democrat who is president of the State Senate. "Essentially taking a chunk of money, setting up a foundation -- that's very different and I think that's going to be debated in the Legislature."

    The project would not have been feasible without the budget surplus, Mr. King said. He was also encouraged by the Ford Motor Company's recent announcement that it would provide computers and Internet service for $5 a month to all its employees worldwide.

    Mr. King also sees the laptop proposal as a good way to change Maine's reputation as a backwoods state.

    "A lot of people think of Maine as a vacation place," he said, yet in 1995 it was the first state to require all its public schools and libraries to be wired for Internet access. Students receiving laptops would get Internet access through the existing school network.

    The House Speaker, G. Steven Rowe, said he wanted to embrace technology for students, but he went on to say: "Fifty million dollars is a lot of money in Maine; it's a lot money anywhere. This would be something that certainly would be a nice thing to do, but we don't have unlimited funds."

    Mr. King, who is not running for re-election, said: "This is a big deal to bring forward late in the legislative session.

    I didn't want to spend my retirement years looking back on a good idea that I didn't try. This job is too aggravating not to try new stuff."

    He said he believed that other states were moving toward the same idea. "The only question is," he said, "Is Maine going to lead or lag?"



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