King Laptop Proposal not Quite What Governor Wanted

By Glenn Adams, Associated Press

The following piece was published by The Boston Globe's on April 28, 2000.

AUGUSTA, Maine -- Gov. Angus King is not getting what he wanted when he asked for laptop computers for every seventh grader in Maine, but he is getting time to justify his ambitious request.

A special panel is being set up to study how to spend money from an endowment of up to $50 million for technology in classrooms. That could buy the laptops, if King can convince the panel it's a good idea.

"He fully believes his idea can stand on its merits," King spokesman Tony Sprague said Wednesday. But if the panel comes up with a better idea for spending the money on technology, "so much the better."

Two months into Maine's legislative session in early March, King announced his proposal to give every one of Maine's 17,000 seventh-graders a laptop computer that will be theirs to keep, beginning in 2002.

He proposed an endowment funded with $50 million in state surplus funds and bolstered with $15 million in private and federal grants. The laptops, as King envisioned it, would be bought with interest from the ongoing endowment.

King campaigned passionately for his proposal, saying he wanted Maine to be the first state to pull off such a venture. Computer literacy, he reasoned, will be as important as knowing how to read and write.

His proposal attracted the attention of President Clinton and drew praise from business groups and out-of-state editorial writers. But legislators in Maine responded with a collective yawn and public school officials said easing crowded classrooms and fixing crumbling buildings were higher priorities.

As the Legislature turned to other issues, counter proposals surfaced. Lawmakers like Rep. Shirley Richard, D-Madison, who initially opposed King's idea, considered it again.

"As people thought about it more, they thought there is some merit in the technology area, and maybe we can do something with this," said Richard, a retired high school teacher and Education Committee member.

What finally emerged was a provision in the $345 million supplemental state budget approved this week to create a Maine Learning Technology Endowment financed with $30 million in surplus funds, plus up to $20 million with unspent money from state departments.

A commission whose members will be appointed by the governor and top legislative leaders will decide how to spend funds from the endowment, giving King about a year to make his case again.

"There are no preconceived notions of what their final product will be," said Sprague, noting that it could be anything from desktop computers for middle-school students to expanded computer labs or block grants for the schools.

King did not feel comfortable when the session started in January asking for money for laptop computers because he wasn't sure surpluses would be there, so he held off until March, when the financial picture was clearer but the session was half-over.

Getting more time to make his pitch for laptops, said Sprague, could turn out to be an advantage for the independent governor.

"What we did find out was that the more people learn about the idea, the more they like it," said the spokesman.

And being the first with such an effort is no longer quite so important to King, who is glad to have advanced the debate. The governor also takes satisfaction, when he's traveling out-of-state, in hearing the words "Maine, extraordinary and technology said in the same sentence," said Sprague.

Similar programs have been launched in other states on a smaller scale. In northern Georgia's Towns County, all 270 middle school students were given computers in the beginning of the school year in 1998. The equipment was paid for by a grant.

The Maine Legislature's commitment to technology does not come at the expense of state funding for local schools, which the newly enacted budget increases by $18.5 million. Another $4.3 million is earmarked for districts facing potential losses in assistance, and $27 million is set aside for health and safety repairs at school