Why Can't Maine Kids be Plugged In?

By Bill Nemitz

The following piece was published by the Portland Press Herald Online on March 8, 2000.


The e-mail to Gov. Angus King's office last Friday said it all: "Dear Governor King, Maine is a poor state. Let someone else lead."

Wow.

"Wow is right," King said Tuesday. "I've tapped into some kind of fear here . . . or something."

Whatever it is - a statewide inferiority complex, a sudden outbreak of myopia - the howls against King's proposal for putting a laptop computer into the hands of every Maine seventh-grader demonstrate two things about our beloved Pine Tree State.

One, bold and revolutionary ideas don't often hatch in Maine.

Two, on the rare occasion that they do, they're attacked by an army of "can'ts."

We can't buy every kid a computer, critics say, because some schools' roofs leak. We can't risk giving a 12-year-old such a high-tech tool, they warn, because he or she might break it. We can't worry about telling the entire country that Maine is shooting for 100 percent computer literacy because . . . because . . . well we just can't.

King, however, is right. Maine can do this. What's more, in an age where the haves and the have nots are fast being defined by who reaches for the mouse and who runs from it, Maine is crazy at least not to try.

King said the idea evolved in recent weeks after he decided to use a chunk of the state's latest $70 million in unexpected surplus for a one-time expenditure "that would really be an inspiration." His wish list, like most, began and ended with education.

He thought about beefing up the $200 million revolving fund approved two years ago to fix the leaky roofs and complete other school repairs and renovations, but he wanted something more visionary. "We're always going to be doing that," King said, adding that in the long run, applying an extra Band-Aid to this chronic sore "is not really going to change anything."

He thought about buying more books, but then thought again. Why put your money into a brand new, hard-copy set of Encyclopedia Britannica when you can buy a laptop that opens to the entire world?

He thought about upgrading the computers now in the schools, but feared that newer technology soon would render it all obsolete "and we'd have to do it all over again."

So King asked his staff to come up with a way to get the most bang out of, say, 50 million bucks. Their response: Create an endowment and use the interest to buy a state-of-the-art laptop for every kid starting seventh grade, year after year after
year . . .

"I was stunned," King said.

The beauty of the idea lies in its inevitability. Laptops, like it or not, will be standard issue for junior-high school in the next five years with or without the governor's plan. But without it, as King noted, "it will happen district by district and it will happen in the rich districts first." (Welcome to "Two Maines," 21st century edition.)

Nationally, everyone from Bill Clinton on down greeted King's proposal with oohs and ahhhs. But opponents here at home, including a startling number of legislators on both sides of the aisle, now argue that this is too big, too bold, too . . . scary?

They say it will waste much-needed money. Not true - by relying only on the interest, the state doesn't spend a dime of its $50 million nest egg.

They say the kids won't have access to the Internet. Not true - they can surf the Net by dialing up their school servers from home. The school network is already in place, anti-smut filters and all.

They say, echoing King's e-mail correspondent, that a "poor" place like Maine is in no position to lead the race down the information highway. Not true - and if given the chance, a state full of seventh-graders will gladly prove what their governor, for one, already senses.

Maine can.

Bill Nemitz is a columnist for The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.