State may issue free laptops

Nomaan Merchant

About 13,000 seventh-graders in Illinois could receive free laptop computers as part of an initiative under debate by state legislators.

It remains unclear whether students in Evanston/Skokie School District 65 would benefit from the program.

Illinois Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn proposed the Illinois Connect program to help low-income and minority students take advantage of improving technology. Quinn said he hopes to provide a laptop to each seventh-grader in the state. Students would keep the laptops for six years.

“We really see laptops as the textbooks of the 21st century,” said Susanne Hack, Quinn’s legislative counsel. “They are necessary in gathering the skills (students) absolutely need to compete in the marketplace.”

Each classroom in District 65 has at least one computer with Internet access. Teachers also incorporate other technology, such as interactive whiteboards for digital presentations, into class time.

Laptops would enhance students’ exposure to technology, District 65 Chief Information Officer Paul Brinson said, but the district would be forced to redesign the curriculum.

“To put a computer in every kid’s hands without a clear plan falls short of the mark,” Brinson said.

The Illinois House of Representatives recently approved a bill co-sponsored by Rep. Julie Hamos (18th-Evanston) to provide about 13,000 laptops for students in 146 schools statewide as part of a pilot program.

The state Senate and Gov. Rod Blagojevich still must approve the measure.

Officials say this initial proposal, which includes training teachers to use the new laptops and increasing the state board of education staff, will cost about $5.2 million.

How Quinn’s program will be funded remains unclear, Hamos said.

“He’s trying to create a vision, a project for which we may not have a good funding source,” Hamos said. “If we don’t put the idea out there and get people excited about it, you can’t go for funding.”

Brinson said the state has not clarified important details about Illinois Connect, such as funding for maintaining and replacing laptops.

“It’s not clear to me that there are sufficient dollars,” Brinson said. “They’re giving everyone cars but not paying for gas.”

If the proposal succeeds, school districts wishing to participate in Illinois Connect will submit applications to the state, which then will choose individual schools based on need and location.

Hack said a similar proposal enacted in Maine suggests a miniscule number of students lose or damage their laptops.

“The students there treat these laptops as gold and are very careful with them,” Hack said. She added schools can limit whether students can take their laptops outside school grounds.

Although District 65 administrators are not sure if they would participate in the program, Brinson said the district will explore any way to offset its growing technology costs.

“Any way we can get technology dollars, we’d be interested in,” Brinson said. “The purchase of technology is very expensive. It sucks down dollars like a black hole.”

Reach Nomaan Merchant at [email protected]