The July 1, BDN article “Schools opt out of laptop plan” raises interesting questions about ways in which state government — the Maine Department of Education in particular — engages the communities it is funded to serve. Details in the article suggest how government in Augusta might be modified to provide both the sup-port and the leadership that the people of Maine deserve.
The BDN article reports that:
1) The Maine Department of Education will order 71,000 Apple MacBooks for fall 2009.
2) The cost of these laptops will be $68 million with half of the cost funded by the state and half by local communities.
3) Only about half of the school districts in Maine have chosen to participate in the program.
4) In a June 4 letter to Maine schools, the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs indicated that “it could not support using General Purpose Aid to fund the laptop program” and that “our recommendation to local school units is caveat emptor or ‘let the buyer beware.’”
5) School districts opting out of the laptop program are adopting a different technology (at one-quarter the cost, for example, Brewer will use a common server and netbooks as terminals).
What do these developments suggest? To the Maine Commissioner of Education Susan Gendron they apparently reflect “incredible success, a complete solution that puts education first.”
On the other hand, to at least 54 of Maine’s 119 high schools and the legislators with oversight responsibility this “incredible success” apparently is not an achievement that Maine can afford. To their concerns, Department of Education Communications Director David Connerty-Martin suggests that “maybe in four years they will take another look at it,” but, given alternative technologies and the apparent lack of confidence that the Maine Learning Technology Initiative program seems to have engendered, wouldn’t it be more appropriate for the Department of Education to work with interested school districts and communities in developing promising alternatives?
The MLTI program has unquestionably been an innovative initiative that has given Maine schools a unique profile (as the BDN article suggests, Maine has become “the first and only state providing laptops for every [middle school] student.” Jeff Mao, Maine coordinator of educational technology and others in the Department of Education have developed a fruitful collaboration with the Apple Corp. By becoming self-interested advocates for a particular initiative, however — by “drinking the Kool-Aid” as Mao acknowledged in one interview — the department has also adopted an inappropriately partisan role. As result, its partisanship, far from fostering innovation, now seriously impedes it. Innovation that departs from the department’s approach is either ignored or actively blocked.
For example: To many residents in our region what the Hermon School District has accomplished with Hermon.Net is unquestionably innovative and successful. A powerful alternative to MLTI, Hemon.Net uses terminal servers, public domain software and wireless technology to provide a computer desktop and Internet access to every student, kindergarten to grade 12, and to every other member of the community. It does this at a fraction of the cost of MLTI. Isn’t it remarkable then that the Department of Education has shown little interest in what Hermon has achieved?
Despite a commitment from Gov. John Baldacci to make the Hermon.Net model available to other communities, despite support from the Legislature and ConnectME, Susan Gendron has had no time to visit Hermon.Net in her tenure as commissioner while Jeff Mao has largely ignored it. Why? Presumably because whatever the innovative potential Hermon.Net might offer, it is not the department’s in-house innovation, and it unsettles the partnership with Apple. The department regards Hermon.Net as a competitor.
Should the Maine Department of Education be in competition with Maine’s school districts? Should it use its fiscal and bureaucratic power to impose its approach rather than foster creativity in Maine’s communities? Isn’t that kind of imposition the worst form of consolidation and centralization? Perhaps the Department of Education — perhaps Augusta — should work to create a network of creative communities and not “innovate” by centralizing at their expense. Perhaps school consolidation would have a chance at success if it fostered such a network rather than top-down management from the commissioner’s office.
A first step might not be to give school districts another four years to discover Augusta was right. Perhaps a first step would be to support — not discourage — Brewer, Hermon and other communities in developing innovative technologies and pedagogies for Maine people. Then the Department of Education might learn to play the innovative role for which it is funded.
Yvon Labbé is the director of the University of Maine’s Franco-American Centre. Tony Brinkley is the senior faculty associate there.