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Texas schools may go to laptops

The state Board of Education is considering a lease-to-own laptop plan for the state's 3.7 million K-12 students.

Last year, the textbooks Texas schoolchildren were reading stated that Ronald Reagan was president, had the Berlin Wall still standing, and made no mention of a deadly epidemic known as AIDS.

The Texas Board of Education spent $375 million to replace the outdated texts with newer versions. Now a few board members want to replace the books with something more current: laptop computers.

Board chairman Jack Christie has been pondering the Wired schools: It takes a village idea for about four years, but the laptops on the market have been far too expensive. He says this is no longer true. Instead of spending an estimated $1.8 billion on books over the next six years, Christie wants to use laptops on a lease-to-own basis for the state's 3.7 million K-12 students.

"With a laptop you could update a history text to reflect a meeting Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had with [Palestinian leader] Yasser Arafat last week," Christie said today. "Doesn't it make sense, if it's affordable now, to make all the textbooks accessible from that laptop?"

Replacing books with PCs won't be easy. Aside from the technical issues--such as whether there are enough plugs to go around--there are fears that the content of classic books will be abandoned for interactive "infotainment."

One idea on the table is to strike deals with text publishers to update their existing curricula online or via CD-ROMs. "We pay for information, not paper and binding--the publishers are ready for this," Christie added.

Although Christie says he doesn't favor one vendor over another, he described in detail a portable computer the board saw demonstrated that was durable (that is, it could be dropped from 3 feet and not be damaged), and contained word-processing software, a graphic calculator, and a modem card for a Net connection, for example. Although he wouldn't say which company made that particular product, overall he estimated that with a volume discount it would cost $500 per child to lease laptops under a warranty, which he contends should be backed up with technical support.

The country's demand for tech-savvy workers, combined with an abundance of public and private funds for hardware, software, and Net access, has helped heat up educators' fever for computers and multimedia gizmos. But many experts agree that effectively using technology to meet curriculum goals requires well-trained teachers, adequate access to technical support, and the appropriate--not best marketed--high-tech tools. Laptops bring up additional issues such as security and loss prevention.

Some schools have definitely jumped before looking when it comes to scooping up high-priced tools for their students. For example, the school board in Earlimart, California, a small town in the Central Valley, bought $3 million worth of laptops, and then went over its yearly budget and ordered $836,000 worth of desktop computers, software, scanners, and modems from CompUSA.

Although it sticks by its laptop purchase, the district was forced to try to return the extra goods or have its operations taken over by the state because it dipped too deep into its reserve fund to cover the sale.

Texas school officials say they won't rush their plan. Every component from training to tech support will be in place by the time the laptops are acquired, they assure.

"Whatever company sells it to us, we'll build it into the deal that teachers get trained to use the new technology," said board member Alma Allen, who supports the proposal.

Mandating that teachers and staff have 120 hours of training before the laptops hit students' desks and getting the vendor to pony up on-call tech support are part of Christie's plan. "We could also have the older computer vocational students do internships at the lower-grade schools and provide the maintenance," he added.

New Texas teachers already are gearing up to meet the challenge. "The push in Texas for the last ten years has been to make sure that teachers are computer literate. I don't see any problem with this proposal. I think our students and teachers are ready for this," said Trinidad San Miguel, the coordinator of the Educator Preparation Improvement Initiative, which helps people study for their state teaching accreditation exams.

A handful of teaching institute exams for certain subjects include questions about the use of computers in the classroom, he added.

Having the right infrastructure is no doubt critical for Texas schools, as renting 4 million laptops for teachers and students would be the state's largest-ever educational technology expenditure.

According to a recent study by Education Week, over the past five years combined Texas has spent about $500 million on educational technology, which comes out to about $30 per student each year. Currently, the state spends $450 on books per student every year. Despite its baby steps so far, the Lone Star State stands out as one of the best ed-tech planners and teacher trainers, according to the editors of the nationwide report.

If Christie had his way, the new laptops would be purchased by the fall of 1999, but some of his colleagues say it won't happen until at least 2004. It also isn't clear whether laptops would completely replace books or just be an additional option for schools. The state education code says instructional material money can be used to buy books or electronic devices. Based on this, Christie will push the state legislature to approve appropriations for the laptops in January.

He's practicing his pitch now: "With a laptop for all children--any time, any place is their classroom."