School laptops losing luster because of budget crunches nationwide

Thursday, October 23rd 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BOOTHBAY HARBOR, Maine (AP) _ Social studies teacher Eric Chamberlin clicks on a projector connected to a laptop computer, beginning a slide on how a bill becomes a law. His eighth-grade students flip open laptops, eagerly winding through the lesson on their screens.

Chamberlin has seen a big change in his students since laptops were introduced into his Boothbay Middle School classroom.

``Stuff will go wrong,'' he said, ``but in the end ... learning is infinitely better than from a static page in a book.''

Most educators and legislators agree the $37.2 million program, which outfits the state's 34,000 seventh- and eighth-graders and 3,000 teachers with laptops, makes the grade. Absenteeism has dropped, and students have shown significant improvement in paying attention to schoolwork.

But few states are rushing to follow Maine's example.

In just a few years time, state budget surpluses that soared during the dot-com era have vanished, and laptops suddenly seem extravagant for states grappling with tight budgets, said Steve Smith, senior policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

``States want to cut things that aren't going to directly affect the classroom,'' Smith said.

Even in Maine, funding is uncertain after the four-year laptop program ends in 2005. Gov. John Baldacci is proposing $5.7 million in 2005 to keep it running, spokesman Lee Umphrey said. The appropriation would require legislative approval.

Talk of expanding Maine's laptop program into high schools has been all but abandoned because of the tight budget.

No other states have attempted a program as ambitious as Maine's, but some are moving forward with their own initiatives.

Michigan approved spending $22 million in state funds and $17.3 million in federal funds in July to give all sixth-graders wireless laptops or handheld computers, possibly by this winter.

In Illinois, each fourth- through sixth-grader in suburban Chicago school district 54 will receive an Apple iBook by next fall. The $6.6 million project is funded through local property taxes.

New Hampshire seventh-graders in up to five schools will get laptops next year through a privately funded pilot program, and Virginia's Henrico County is paying $18.5 million to lease iBooks for its high school students.

Former Maine Gov. Angus King, who announced plans for the Maine program in March 2000 amid widespread skepticism by lawmakers and others, envisioned the program as providing laptops to every middle and high school student. At the time, lawmakers were deciding what to do with a $350 million budget surplus.

While the budget surpluses are gone, King still believes in the feasibility of his original vision and said the state needs to secure federal funding to help expand the program into high schools.

``The good news is it seems to be a resounding success,'' he said. ``The bad news is we've got to keep it going.''

Some school districts are looking for private funding to expand the program into high schools, but none has succeeded, he said.

Most middle school teachers have embraced the laptops, and it's not unusual for their students to create multimedia presentations instead of turning in traditional reports.

Last year, Chamberlin's students created a Web site focusing on whether the United States should attack Iraq, with opinions for and against. ``There are no textbooks they can use to look that up,'' he said.

Two years ago, Boothbay Middle was one of the first schools to outfit seventh-graders with laptops. Last fall, seventh-graders statewide got them. This fall, the program expanded to include eighth-graders.

That means Boothbay students who had laptops in both seventh and eighth grades are now without them in the ninth. It's proving to be a difficult and disappointing transition that even more students will face next year.

Eighth-grader Julie Higgins said she can't imagine learning without a laptop next year when she enters high school. As it now stands, she'll have to give up her computer.

``It will be hard because we're going to go back to how we were (before laptops),'' the 13-year-old said.

Ninth-grade social studies teacher Joyce Sirois said she's eager to integrate laptops into her classroom, and hopes Boothbay Harbor will pick up the cost, whether through town money, state funds, private fund-raising, or all of the above.

``I absolutely think it's essential,'' she said. ``I'm disgusted we don't have them in the high school. To stop them halfway when they've had them for two years is just silly.''