The state has extended its contract with Apple for student devices for another year, but officials say they are still discussing whether to significantly change the program that puts state-financed computers in the hands of every seventh- and eighth-grader in the state.

One possibility: Letting schools decide that they’d rather use the Maine Learning Technology Initiative – or MLTI – to provide devices to younger children instead of middle schoolers, or only use devices for learning certain subjects.

“We ought to stand back and have a broad discussion, not to give up MLTI at all, but to have a pivot in some way,” Deputy Education Commissioner Bill Beardsley said Friday. “We might keep doing it (the same way) or maybe we shift resources to the schools so they can do their own brainstorming.”

The current four-year contract was initially signed in 2012, and the state has exercised three of six possible one-year extensions, the most recent just two weeks ago. What the administration is contemplating is whether to stop exercising the extensions, which would still allow the state to continue under the current contract through 2020.

“It gives us a chance to regroup, to think it through,” Beardsley said. “Should we still be doing the concept of what Angus King came up with, or a new concept?”

Maine’s school laptop program began in 2002 under then-Gov. Angus King. Apple held the exclusive contract with the state until 2013, when the LePage administration added a Hewlett-Packard option.

Today, the state spends about $10.5 million per year on Apple products, and about $1 million per year on H-P products, according to MLTI Director Mike Muir.

Beardsley said Gov. Paul LePage has urged the Education Department to focus less on the hardware – iPads versus laptops, H-P versus Apple – and more about figuring out how to make sure the state invests in hardware that has the biggest bang for the buck in helping students learn.

If the focus is on having students reading at grade level in the third grade, a common benchmark for future success, perhaps the state should focus its MLTI resources on that goal, officials said.

LePage has been skeptical of the program in the past, and even threatened to end it entirely, according to emails between him and then-Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen.

Beardsley said LePage has asked the department to show evidence that the devices and the MLTI support resources for schools are resulting in improved student outcomes.

“(LePage) cares about student learning,” Muir said. “He wants to know what’s next. … Let’s make it about the learning, not the devices.”

Muir said he knows “test scores are very important to the governor as a metric,” but officials will also consider tracking data on attendance, behavior, and student engagement to show the impact of the MLTI program.

Beardsley said they will spend the next year considering their options, and that any change to the program would be within the existing law and not require legislative action.

Because the contract expires after LePage is termed out of office, Beardsley said they are “doing the homework for whoever the decision maker will be.”

“It’s such a big project and it’s so critical. Let’s make sure we have a year or two” for researching options, he said.

Under the most recent amendment to the original MLTI contract, the state replaced devices a year early, and schools had the choice of iPads or laptops. Muir said he estimated that the previous balance was about 60-40 in favor of iPads and he thought it would reverse to about 60-40 in favor of laptops. Education officials have found that, generally speaking, the iPads are more useful for younger children, while laptops are better for older students.

Most of the old devices have already been collected and the new devices are currently being distributed.

The state did the refresh on the contract, Beardsley said, because Apple gave it a good deal.

It was cost-neutral, and “Apple came up with a deal that had high discounts, new features people wanted and those kind of things,” he said. “Basically, it was very, very attractive. If it hadn’t been, I would have said we’re not going to do it.”

Noel K. Gallagher can be reached at 791-6387 or at:

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