From Lunch Boxes to Laptops: The Governor King Initiative

On March 2, 2000, Governor Angus King of Maine launched a bold initiative to turn his state and its children into leaders of the digital revolution. King's proposal, "From Lunch Boxes to Laptops," would make Maine the first state to consider a child's ownership of a personal computer as much an inalienable right as the right to attend school. Specifically, King submits that every student should graduate from sixth grade not only with fluency in using computers but also with a personal computer to keep and use in school and out. Governor King credits Seymour Papert with inspiring and helping to shape the plan. (See the link to "Blue Hill Man Inspired King's Laptop Proposal" at the end of this article.)

This unprecedented plan has drawn both high praise and harsh criticism and has sparked discussion across the nation. Few issues in Maine have given rise in such a short time to so much public writing—editorials, op-ed pieces, columns, letters to the editor—and discussion on radio talk shows, Web sites, chat rooms, and other such forums. Papert has commented that whether or not the proposal is supported by the state legislature, which in the end has to approve it, it has already advanced education by stirring up such a wealth of discussion. "The ballpark of discussion has changed," he says. "People who thought that the question about technology in education was whether there should be a computer in every classroom have had their eyes opened to the idea that something much bigger is at stake."

Public opinion and support from lawmakers shifted dramatically in the six weeks that followed the announcement of the initiative. As late as mid-April not a single legislator had agreed to support the plan. The state appropriations committee turned it down by a vote of 10 to 1. But as a result of all the writing and talk, the tide was turned to such a degree that the final state budget, signed on April 27, included funds for a compromise plan that is closer to King's proposal than anyone thought possible two weeks earlier. A fund that will be at least $30 million and may be as much as $60 million, depending on how state budget surpluses work out, has been allocated for providing technology to students. The distribution of money will be determined by a task force whose members are to be named by the state senate, the speaker of the house, and the governor.

King's original plan set aside $50 million from the state budget surplus for a technology endowment. Beginning in 2002 interest from this fund, together with privately raised money (King envisioned at least $15 million), would have paid for laptop computers for every student in every seventh-grade class in Maine's public schools. The endowment would also have been used to pay half the cost of personal computers for public-school teachers at all grade levels. School districts would have been expected to make a one-time contribution of $250 per teacher, the teacher providing the rest. An additional $1 million per year in ongoing professional development for teachers would have helped them to integrate the use of technology and the Internet into the curriculum.

That King's plan has struck a chord is demonstrated by the energy of its supporters and opponents and by the polarization of their views. Those who condemn it criticize its cost and argue that the budgetary surplus should support other priorities, such as the repairing of school buildings or the subsidization of care for the elderly. Some argue that seventh-graders are too irresponsible to own computers.

According to supporters—among them President Clinton, who describes it as "an amazing thing"—the plan provides an opportunity to place Maine and its young citizens in a position of national leadership. Some believe that it is an essential component of Maine's ongoing efforts to build a high-tech economy. Others argue that the benefits of increased technological fluency will reach not only children but also their parents, who will use the computers with their children at home.

In any case, the debate in Maine once more illustrates the adage, "Where Maine goes, there goes the nation." The following links show what people are saying there and will surely soon be saying throughout the country.

From Lunch Boxes to Laptops: Giving Our Kids Computers Will Change Their Future and Maine's (Governor Angus King, Maine state Web site)

Why Can't Maine Kids Be Plugged In? (Bill Nemitz, Portland Press Herald Online, March 8, 2000)

Blue Hill Man Inspired King's Laptop Proposal  (Gregory Williams, The Ellsworth American, March 16, 2000)

Questions That Need Sensible Answers  (A. David Trahan, Bangor Daily News, March 23, 2000)

Free Laptop Idea Not a Good One  (Edward Perlman, Portland Press Herald Online, March 24, 2000)

Acute Pencil Shortage Strikes State Lawmakers  (Bruce Kyle, Bangor Daily News, March 30, 2000)

King Laptop Proposal not Quite What Governor Wanted  (Glenn Adams, Associated Press, The Boston Globe's, April 28, 2000)