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Eye On Boise

Computer firms eye business from Idaho school reform plan

As Idaho looks at education reforms that could place laptops in every high school, computer companies are already eyeing what could become a lucrative contract with the state, according to the Associated Press; click below for a full report from AP reporter Jessie Bonner.

Idaho's education reforms attract computer makers
By JESSIE L. BONNER, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — As Idaho looks at education reforms that could place laptops in every high school, computer companies are already eyeing what could become a lucrative contract with the state.

Public schools chief Tom Luna unveiled his sweeping overhaul at the start of the 2011 Idaho Legislature, calling for the state to place laptops and other technology in the hands of high school students while making online courses a requirement to graduate.

The legislation call for the state Department of Education to provide a classroom's worth of mobile computing devices, which could be laptops to start and later come in the form of other electronics such an iPad or another tablet, in every high school for the next five years.

While online education providers stand to profit in Idaho should lawmakers decide to make their courses mandatory, computer makers could also make a bundle if the reforms are placed into law. And a handful of companies have already contacted the state.

"We've been very careful with the vendors that have approached and certainly what we've said to them is that, there's going to be a task force that comes forward with recommendations," aid Luna's chief of staff, Luci Willits. "We have not engaged any vendors."

A budget plan for the proposed reforms includes $4.7 million each year, for five years, to phase in laptops for high school students. There's another $2.3 million to $9.5 million budgeted each year for maintenance, repairs and support. Altogether, a statewide contract could be worth an estimated $57.2 million over five years.

The legislation calls for Luna to form a task force that would decide how to implement the online course requirements and the laptop program, making recommendations on the types of devices Idaho should use and whether there should be a statewide contract or multiple contracts for individual school districts.

Idaho may not be picking sides yet when it comes to which company would provide the hardware, but at the state Legislature, it's not uncommon to find a lobbyist for Apple Inc. touting the latest technology being used in the classroom or to hear a representative from chip-maker Intel Corp. praise Luna's education reforms at a public hearing.

"Most of the people who have been there from these companies are their education arms, so they've brought research and have been able to show how technology can influence the classroom," Willits said. "Certainly there's another arm, which is the vendor arm, and we've not engaged any vendors whatsoever."

House Education Committee Chairman Bob Nonini was among lawmakers impressed last week during a presentation by Apple Inc., which provides laptops to Maine students under a four-year, $64 million lease signed in 2009 and showed off some of the latest mobile devices and online curriculums being used by students.

"I think technology is great. I wish we would have had it in our era but we didn't," Nonini said. "I don't think we can let the kids move forward without it."

Democrats on the committee were more skeptical and questioned how much the technology would cost and whether teachers had been let go to help pay for computers in other states. Under the Idaho plan, the state would increase class sizes in grades four through 12 to pay for a bulk of the education reforms, cutting 770 teaching jobs.

State Rep. Brian Cronin, a Boise Democrat, sits on the education committee and said he felt like he was being "sold a solution" for public schools.

"Apple is, after all, a high-tech manufacturing company," Cronin said. "And as unusual as it might be for Apple to come to us and say: 'What do you guys think will be the next great iPhone?' ... I'm not sure I understand the idea of a high-tech company necessarily advising us on educational policy."

Apple lobbyist Renee Sinclair countered she was merely trying to brief lawmakers, at their request, on the latest online applications being used in schools.

"We show them on Apple products because that's what we do. We're not here to sell you a product," said Sinclair, who later hailed the company's experience with big state initiatives like the one proposed in Idaho. "We've tried to be a resource here as this legislation is moving through," she said.

When asked if Apple would ultimately like to be the company that provides the hardware should Idaho adopt the reforms, Sinclair said: "I would imagine we would ... My role is to talk about policy. There are sales people, when that time comes, who will deal with that end of it."

The legislation to boost technology in the classroom remains in the Idaho Senate, where it was introduced this month and is being reworked amid lawmaker concerns that include increased class sizes. The Senate passed two other bills that are in Luna's reform package and would eliminate tenure for new teachers, restrict collective bargaining and introduce merit pay

This session not the first time companies have been sure to get their name in while the state considers legislation that would place more education-driven products in the classroom.

"The same thing happened when the textbook program, this happened with (Idaho Standardized Achieve Test) remediation," said Department of Education spokeswoman Melissa McGrath. "Anytime there's an additional revenue stream for school districts, those companies call us and will look at that revenue stream and see how they can participate."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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