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Bring Your Own Device: State Now Letting Schools Decide Hardware To Buy Under Laptop Program

After 15 years, Maine's program to provide technology to every 7th- and 8th-grader is changing. A new structure puts more responsibility and control in the hands of local districts.

Some educators say they're in favor of increased choice. But others fear that decentralization could set the program back and harm some of Maine's rural schools.

This is the third of a three-part report. To read part one click here, to read part two click here.

Independent U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine said when he launched the program to give every 7th- and 8th-grader a laptop back in 2001, the goal was never about test scores. The former governor said it was always about giving each student the same device, to put every student in Maine on equal ground.

"That the kids in Fort Kent would have the same device and the same opportunity as the kids in Cape Elizabeth," King said. "And the kids in Rumford would get them, as well as the kids in Camden. And that was an essential principle of the project."

There were other advantages, too. By purchasing laptops in bulk, the state could get them at lower cost. And Bette Manchester, the first director of the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, said because everyone was working with the same technology, schools could work to solve problems together.

"If something broke down in the network, or something happened with a laptop, you’d have one organization to go to." said Manchester. "And it proved to be, I can’t tell you the stories that really reiterated the importance of what we decided to do in the beginning."

That one-device model existed until four years ago, when the Department of Education gave schools an option of five devices to lease, instead. This year, the state is no longer offering any at all. For the first time, the state will hand out block grants for schools to find computers themselves.

That may not seem like a big deal, but it has already drastically changing the technology going into Maine's schools. For years, the state has favored devices like MacBooks and iPads. But many districts are now opting for a different device: the generally cheaper, more internet-reliant Chromebook.

The Ellsworth School Department is one of them. Technology Director April Clifford said Ellsworth previously leased iPads from the state. This year Clifford had to shop around herself for the high school. And when she got quotes for Apple computers in December, she said they were much higher than what the district previously paid.

"But [losing] that large, buy in power as a state has really negatively impacted my district," Clifford said.

Eventually, Clifford opted for Chromebooks. And she and other schools are excited about the new devices. Clifford said the devices are more rugged and feature powerful learning applications. She said her district is using the cost savings to provide Chromebooks to elementary students, as well.

"As well as [grades] 9 through 12," she said. "But if we went with the Apple solution, we wouldn't have been able to outfit the whole high school. The price points are just so different."

Many schools leased new iPads and MacBooks last year through the state that will last until 2020. However, some educators are worried that this year's shift could leave some rural Maine districts behind.

"That may work down in southern Maine, where you actually have internet access at home everywhere," Priest said. "But up here in the woods, there's still— a whole bunch of kids cannot get any access at all."

Crystal Priest is the technology director for School Administrative District 4, in Piscataquis County. It was the first district in Maine to give a laptop to every 8th-grader. Now every student gets a device from preschool through their senior year. Priest said while Chromebooks are cheaper, they have drawbacks. Internet access is necessary for many applications, which she said is not an option for many students in her district.

"You're not going to throw a Chromebook on a cellphone plan and expect them to actually have a useful, functioning machine when they go home," Priest said. "That's not as much of an option up here."

Some school leaders also think what's happening is the state is shifting costs to local districts. The state used to pay at least $850 per student to schools over four years. The new grants only provide $600 over three.

Schools say that because the state is no longer buying in bulk, they now need to pony up more money individually. Steve Bailey, the president of the Maine School Superintendents Association, said many schools are already facing cuts this year; this could make it worse, particularly for low-income districts.

"It does feel like things are shrinking," Bailey said. "As the pond dries up, there's no more liquid to keep things flush with funds, to keep things going without local support. When you don't have money in that direction, then it takes it from some other place".

In addition, Madawaska Technology Director Vince Vanier said it's more difficult for tiny tech teams in small schools to troubleshoot problems themselves.

"I'm up in Northern Maine," he said. "We've got myself and another half-time tech that are dedicated to making this project work. And if we had to come up with a solution on our own, it would be darn near impossible to get the same results we had over the previous 13 years or so."

Education Commissioner Robert Hasson said the department created this change because it heard from many districts who wanted more choices in technology. He said the state remains committed to MLTI. But it wants to shift the emphasis away from the hardware and focus more on helping students learn with technology.

"This is a shift, to get away from the devices being at the forefront. And the devices to be in the background," Hasson said.

He wants the department to help teachers leverage the technology in the classroom, regardless of their device.

Like Vanier, said they have been left out of discussions about this new direction and want input in the future.

"I think Maine educators know what Maine educators need more than anyone, when it comes to a solution like this. We know what's been working, what needs to happen, I'd like to see more of an organic approach to finding a solution," said Vanier.

Hasson said the Department of Education will seek feedback from teachers, principals, tech directors, and students. And he said, after 15 years, the goal of the program remains the same: to improve teaching and learning.

Maine Public education reporting is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.