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November 25, 1998


Education

By PAMELA MENDELS Bio

School Laptop Program Raises
Concerns About Equal Access

When Gay S. Keyes, the mother of a sixth grader in Beaufort County, S.C., first heard about a local school district program encouraging middle school students to obtain portable computers, she was intrigued.

When she went to a meeting in September to find out more, she emerged with a case of sticker shock. To participate, Keyes learned, she and her husband would have to buy the computer outright for about $2,000, or arrange for private loans of about $30 to $80 a month, depending on the repayment schedule and the lender.

In the end, Keyes decided to forgo the purchase -- instead putting in extra hours as a substitute teacher to buy a new desktop computer for the whole family. She also decided to join other parents raising vocal public questions about the program and its costs. Keyes was one of the speakers at a school board meeting earlier this month, where parents presented a petition, signed by 53 people, protesting the program as inappropriate for a public school system dedicated to equal opportunity for all students.

"I think it's wrong to be talking about that kind of investment -- $2,000-- to families who don't have the means to consider it," she said in an interview this week. "Public school is not designed to be this way. It's supposed to mean access for everyone."


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Beaufort County is one of about 515 school districts and private schools around the country participating in the increasingly-popular school laptops program, which is sponsored by Toshiba and Microsoft. Families buy or lease the computers, bundled with word processing and other software programs, with the hope that portable computers can offer their children the ability to take notes more easily, write papers and do research on the Internet.

Today, about 60,000 students and teachers in the United States participate in the program, a big jump from two years ago, when it was kicked off in 52 institutions.

Beaufort County, a diverse oceanside community that includes the wealthy Hilton Head area as well as numerous families so poor that they qualify for free school lunches, was one of the pioneer participants. Today, about 1,950 students, or about half of those enrolled in Beaufort's three middle schools, have laptops through the program.

In its first year, the cost of leasing the machines was subsidized for all participants by a nonprofit group set up to help with the portables program, with the biggest subsidies going to the poorest families. But this year, subsidies were restricted to 300 poor families, in large part because the fundraising efforts of the program could not keep up with demand for the computers.

The result was that middle class parents like Keyes were told they would have to pay for the laptops themselves.

For some, it was just asking too much, said Sheree P. Wright, a mother of three, including one middle school student. "People were having to decide between buying a laptop or putting braces on their child," she said.

Among other things, she said, parents questioned whether the educational bang from the laptop program was worth the big bucks it demanded. Wright noted that in parent-teacher meetings this year, teachers have told her that her honor roll daughter is not missing out academically by not owning a portable computer. And, she said, she has heard stories that students who have had laptops for a year or so do not make extensive use of them.

And Keyes said it is unclear to parents how, exactly, the devices are being used in classrooms, many of which are already equipped with personal computers. "We don't know what are the benefits to the kids and how do they compare to just taking a computer class," she said.

There is another issue, too. Parents assert that even though school administrators say the initiative is voluntary, anxious young teens who want to feel part of the group feel pressure to participate -- pressure that they in turn exert on their parents.

"It's a status symbol. You ask any sixth, seventh or eighth grader who doesn't have it. They feel left out. You have enough of that sort of thing with Hilfiger outfits," Wright said.

Those who favor the program say it has ample precedents in schools. Parents are routinely asked to contribute to everything from field trips to the purchase of musical instruments, said Margaret D. Rushton, a parent who believes that having a laptop has helped her daughter become a more fluent writer.

John C. Williams, a spokesman for the district, said laptops do give children an academic edge. He said soon-to-be-released test results, comparing middle school students who have the devices with those who don't, show that on average the laptop owners are able to avoid a slump in test scores that typically occurs with other sixth graders.



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Williams conceded that to date there may be teachers who are not making good use of technology in the classroom, but he said that should change shortly, because teachers are receiving technology training. "In the worst cases, the laptop is probably used just for note-taking," he said. "We expect that to be eliminated."

As for peer pressure, Williams said parents could use the laptop question as "a valuable lesson to kids that Mom and Dad can't afford everything under the sun."

Representatives of both Toshiba and Microsoft say the Beaufort parent protest is not the first time the program has encountered resistance from parents who balked at the price. But, they insisted that the program, which is voluntary in all districts where it has been introduced to date, is generally accepted with enthusiasm.

However, for Wright, the program violates a principle of public education, that no one child is better off than another because of family income. "It can't be voluntary if you don't have $2,000 laying around," she said.

The EDUCATION column is published weekly, on Wednesdays. Click here for a list of links to other columns in the series.


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Pamela Mendels at mendels@nytimes.com welcomes your comments and suggestions.

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