A decade ago, this was the bold new idea: The state would pass out laptop computer like textbooks to every seventh- and eighth-grader.

This would not only give students and teachers access to the vast world of the Internet, it would put Maine on the map.

“I want Maine to have the most digitally literate society on Earth,” then Gov. Angus King told The New York Times when he rolled out his idea. But Maine would have to work quickly, King said, because some other state was liable to be first. “The only question is, is Maine going to lead or lag?”

Maine led. And 10 years and $93 million later, it remains the only state committed to a computer for every student in its public school system.

Whether this was a good idea educationally is debatable. I have two children who have gone through middle school in Maine and they are both very fluent computer users. They also know a lot about cable television shows, even though we don’t have cable, and at least one spends a lot of time on Facebook. It was also much easier to control and monitor their computer use when the whole family was sharing one.

But the laptop effort was never just about education. It came out of the governor’s office, not the schools, and it was as much about changing Maine’s brand as it was about giving teachers a tool they needed.

At a time when about two dozen people running to fill King’s old job all promise new ideas, it’s worth asking some questions about what we’ve tried in past. Ten years ago Maine jumped out ahead of the pack and committed to computers for every middle school student.

So, was it worth it? It’s hard to say.

Economist Charles Colgan said the initiative was not enough to change Maine’s brand all on its own.

“Maine always suffers from an image problem,” he said. “People still see the state as lobsters and trees.”

And Colgan said it’s hard to measure growth in technology jobs because of their changing nature. In 2000, companies outsourced their information technology work to specialized contractors. Now, they are likely to employ IT workers in house, or train other employees to handle issues on their own.

One technology promoter thinks the laptop program didn’t go far enough.

Joe Kumiszcza, executive director of the Technology Association of Maine, said at the time he proposed not only distributing computers but also building them here. At the time, federal grants would have covered the labor costs and could have developed a manufacturing sector in Maine while supplying hardware to the schools

If the state were to open its coffers to him now, Kumiszcza said he would find a way to invest it more directly in work force development. Maine has qualified IT workers who make less than their counterparts elsewhere, and they would be a draw to companies looking to relocate if there were more of them.

His group is currently applying for grants that would, in partnership with University of Southern Maine and Southern Maine Community College, set up a software testing and usability design center that would give Maine students skills and experience.

“We would start at the high school level on game testing and game development,” he said. Using student labor would make the service price competitive with any country in the world.

Programs that turn out skilled workers, from technicians to engineers, would be a draw to other companies looking for a home and could be more effective at attracting investment than the laptop program has been so far, he said.

But it may be too soon to say what the value of the program really is. Aside from the public relations splash 10 years ago, we are still waiting for the program to bear fruit. The first class of seventh-graders to be assigned a laptop in 2002 are still in college, said Jeff Mao, the learning technology policy director at the state Department of Education.

“This was a long-term project,” he said. “We are still waiting for our first generation of ‘digital natives’ to come into the work force.”

At least one entrepreneur is willing to keep waiting.

Corky Ellis, president of Kepware Technologies, brought his company to Maine five years before the laptop initiative. It has grown into exactly the kind of high-tech, high-paying company that Maine’s economic development strategies have been focused on since Angus King’s days in Augusta.

Ellis has no opinion on whether the laptop program has worked. But he said he would much rather see the state spending money to put a computer in front of every student than dangle $200 million in incentives to attract an out-of-state company, the way Florida is doing to be the site of the Jackson Lab expansion.

“Our issue is education,” Ellis said. “We don’t care about our taxes. Having a great engineer gives us millions of dollars in revenue. The more engineers from Maine schools, the better.”

Ellis is more worried about cuts to the University of Maine’s budget than he is about middle and high school kids getting more access to technology than they really need.

If we are going to get and keep more companies like Kepware, producing more engineers should be the next decade’s bold new idea.

 

Greg Kesich is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6481, or [email protected]