Maine proposes computer for every seventh grader

Every seventh grader in Maine would get a free laptop that they could keep

after graduation under a precedent-setting proposal announced Thursday by

Gov. Angus King.

Calling his bold plan a way to close the digital divide as well as a way

to put Maine on the technology map, King said it would take $50 million

of state money to accomplish, along with $15 million from federal or private

sources. If King's plan were approved, Maine would be the first state to

try such a comprehensive computer give-away.

"We don't see another area in education where $50 million could have such

a major impact," said Tony Sprague, a spokesman for the governor.

The money is available in this year's state surplus. Sprague said the state

would place the money in an endowment fund that would be used to pay for

students' computers starting in 2002, continuing, ostensibly, forever.

Students would get a laptop on the first day of seventh grade. Although

the computers technically would be school property until graduation, students

could take them home for homework and research. From home, students would

be able to log on to the free Internet access available at every school

library in Maine.

The state does not yet have a contract with a vendor, Sprague said. However,

because Maine will be buying so many laptops at once, he said the state

is banking on a discount that would cut the cost of each computer to $450

to $500.

About 21,000 students and teachers would get laptops the first year, Sprague

said. The endowment would pay half the cost of equipping every K-12 teacher

with a laptop. The school districts would pay the other half.

Money also would be dedicated to training teachers how to incorporate technology

and the Internet into their curricula.

Sprague acknowledges the program will not be an easy sell. The administration

anticipates criticism, including the possibility that kids will damage the

computers and claims that the money could be used for other educational

needs such as school renovations.

"We're preparing for a tough battle," Sprague said.

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