April 07, 2020

Panel recommends state ownership of laptop computers

AUGUSTA – If the state equips students with laptop computers, the schools – not the students – should own them, according to members of a task force studying the issue.

The 17-member panel has not taken its final votes, but some members say the consensus is that the schools should own any computers purchased, accordng to outgoing state Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, chairman of the task force.

The Legislature created the $50 million school technology endowment and the task force in response to Gov. Angus King’s proposal to give laptops to seventh-graders.

The issue of ownership has been a source of controversy since King announced his plan in March. Lawmakers from both parties criticized the plan, saying seventh-graders should not be entrusted with computers and that the money was needed for more pressing needs, including school construction and repairs.

King later suggested that schools own the computers and lend them to students, much as library books are loaned out. The task force, which includes lawmakers, bureaucrats and educators, is leaning in the same direction.

Task force member Sen. Sharon Treat, D-Gardiner, said opposition to student ownership of state-issued laptops was strong as she campaigned door-to-door this year. She said health care was the only issue she heard about more often.

“We’re there to serve the public. It’s their money and we should do whatever the majority thinks,” said Rep. Richard Mailhot, D-Lewiston.

It’s unclear whether the task force will resolve related issues by its Jan. 15 deadline for reporting to the Legislature. The panel hasn’t decided what kind of computers to buy, how many should be purchased, which students should get them and how they should be distributed to schools.

Just how much money will be available for the project also remains uncertain. The plan is to invest the endowment’s $50 million and use the interest to buy the computers. Panel members say the interest could be about $2 million to $6 million a year, depending on the duration of the investment.

Some members believe the endowment will be eliminated or reduced because of an anticipated budget shortfall.

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