From Lunchboxes to Laptops:
Giving Our Kids Computers Will Change Their Future and Maine's

By Governor Angus King

The following piece was published by Governor King of Maine on his Web site in early March, 2000.

When President Clinton spoke last week on the "digital divide" - the gap between those citizens who utilize and have access to computer technology and those who don't - he outlined how the federal government proposes to address this growing problem. If it isn't solved, he said, many people will be left behind in the new economy, without the skills they need to get the good jobs that pay good wages and benefits. One solution, he said, is happening in Maine.

"It's an amazing thing," Clinton said. "They're going to start by giving every 7th grader a laptop, but the way they're going to do it is to make sure that the 7th grader will also be able to take the computer home and to try to involve the parents in it. And that, I think, is a remarkably good thing."

And who was the president talking to? It was the Aspen Institute's Forum on Communications and Society at the Silicon Valley Conference Center at Novell Headquarters in San Jose, California. The audience included high-tech executives, educators, and leaders of non-profit organizations and foundations who I'll bet think of Maine as a nice place to visit in the summer, but not as a center for high-tech. In an instant, their perception of Maine was irrevocably altered. Maybe next time they're thinking of where to build a new factory or expand their business, they'll remember the President's words.

For more than 100 years, Maine has always been in the bottom third of states - in prosperity, income, education and opportunity for our kids. In my 30 years of working on Maine economic issues, no idea has had as much potential for leapfrogging the other states and putting Maine in a position of national leadership than this one - giving our students portable, Internet-ready computers as a basic tool of learning.

It's a bold move, I know, one that has raised controversy and lots of questions. Here are some answers:

1. Why should we buy all these computers? The schools already have computer labs and it's an awful lot of money.

There is no question that the jobs of the future, in every area - manufacturing, services, healthcare, retail, government, education, everywhere - all will involve computer and Internet literacy, and those individuals and societies that are the most competent and at ease with this technology will be the most successful. A better shot at prosperity and opportunity is what this initiative is all about.

The fundamental idea is to make computers an integral part of our educational process - and our students' way of thinking and working. The key idea is "integral part" - to move the computer and the internet from the lab - down the hall and once a week - and put them in the backpacks - for use every day in every class and every home.

The implementation of this initiative will move Maine students to the head of the class - the forefront of the world - in access to technology.

2. What exactly does the program involve?

The concept is simple: we set aside $50 million of the unallocated surplus created by the recent upward revenue projections and place it in a permanent endowment fund, the income from which will be used to buy laptop computers for every 7th grader in Maine, forever. It's important to understand that we're not spending the $50 million; we're saving it and using only the interest. In this way, at the end of five years, every student in Maine above the 6th grade will have his or her own computer. The State's contribution to the fund would be matched by $15 million from private or federal sources, and the first round of purchases would begin in the fall of 2002.

The proceeds from the fund would be administered by a public-private foundation that would decide the technical aspects of the computers, negotiate the purchases, and manage the distribution. Again, I'm not proposing that we spend the $50 million; to the contrary, we would save it and use only the interest to make this work.

3. Why laptops and not desktops?

The big advantage of laptops is that they can go home - and at a stroke, we will have gone a long way toward eliminating the "digital divide" - the growing gap between those connected to technology and those who are not. In addition, laptops - which can operate in school on batteries charged at home - won't require extensive rewiring of classrooms in order to function on every desk.

4. How about the teachers? Are we just going to drop all these computers on the kids and expect the teachers to catch up?

No - a key part of this initiative will be to empower the teachers to lead this transformation. First, the fund would pay half the cost of purchasing the computers for every teacher in the state (K - 12) in a five-year phase-in (with replacement every five years, as the technology develops). The approximate one-time cost to the local district would be $250.00 per teacher.

Second, and perhaps more important, I have proposed in my supplemental budget request an additional $1 million per year in ongoing support for professional development in the area of integrating technology and the Internet into the curriculum.

5. If we give computers to the kids, won't some be broken, lost, sold, or otherwise abused?

Sure - some loss and breakage is inevitable in a program of this magnitude (approximately 20,000 computers will be given out each year - 17,000 to students and 3,000 to teachers), just as textbooks get lost or fall apart. But this risk does not seem overwhelming, given the huge benefits. Besides, right now thousands of our kids are doing a pretty good job of keeping track of their Game-Boys - which are nothing more than handheld computers.

6. But what if they do break - who pays to maintain them?

We would do it ourselves, building on the capacity the state has already developed in our correctional system to repair and upgrade machines for the current computers-for-schools program. We have already refurbished and upgraded over 1,000 donated computers under this program - creating more access to technology for our schools and valuable job skills for our medium security inmates. So the system to provide efficient, low-cost maintenance is already in place.

7. But won't these computers be obsolete by the time the 7th graders reach the end of high school?

In some ways, yes, but in a general sense, no. These computers will be designed for three basic functions: word processing, math (spreadsheets, data manipulation), and, perhaps most important, e-mail and access to the Internet. Although there are certain to be improvements in technology (and probably price) within any five-year period, the machines will still perform these critical functions, and inexpensive upgrades would be possible as well. Advanced operations - graphics, for example - will still require the larger, more powerful machines in the computer lab. The laptops would compliment - not replace - the larger machines already present in the computer labs of most schools.

8. But everybody's saying we should fix the schools first; why should we buy computers when lots of kids are going to school in trailers?

The short answer is we can do both. In the last several years, the state has provided more funds ($43 million in cash) for school renovation than ever before. This year, there's at least another $20 million on the table for this purpose. On top of that, we are about to release $200 million for new school construction. All told, this is the largest commitment to repairing and replacing our school facilities in the state's history, and this will continue to be a high priority.

The question is whether we have to wait until every roof is fixed before taking this step, which will have such a tremendous value to our kinds and the state; if we do, we'll never get there.

9. It still seems like a lot of money - are there any other benefits beyond those to the kids themselves?

Absolutely - if we can pull this off, it will put Maine on the national technological map. This is a huge step that has already made headline news around the world - and will place us in the front rank of the states in terms of education and the integration of this essential technology into the everyday life of our students. Having taken this step will undoubtedly be a huge help in our ongoing and critically important efforts to build a high-tech economy.

10. But aren't there other important things we could spend this money on?

Sure, but remember this is a one-time investment. We're not going to have this $50 million obligation next year or the year after - for tax cuts, elderly drug assistance, aid to education, job training, or any other ongoing programs. Viewed in that way, it's hard to imagine any single investment or group of investments matching this in long-term impact.

11. OK, OK, but can you guarantee it will work - that the price will be affordable, that the investment returns will be adequate, that the kids will take care of the machines?

Of course not. All we can go on now are best estimates of how it could come together - and those estimates are that it will work. And if it doesn't work, we still have the money. If we find that we can't raise the private match (or find it within our own future resources) or that the price of the computers we need is too high, or that the machines prove nonfunctional in the classroom, we can reallocate the fund and the only loss, if any, is the income expended.

But if it does work, think of what we'll accomplish, for our kids and for Maine. This is a bold step, and any such attempt involves risk. But the returns - to the state, our economy, and especially to our children - are immeasurable.

For good or ill, this technology is with us and will transform us. If we resist it, we will decline; if we accept it, we will survive; if we embrace it, we will flourish.

Why shouldn't Maine be first?