The Michigan Legislature’s plan to equip every public school sixth-grader with a laptop computer — at an initial cost of $39.3 million — is based on dubious premises about technology and education reform, not to mention much higher costs to taxpayers down the road. In the end, it will be another expensive but spectacular failure to improve the public school system.

Proposed by House Speaker Rick Johnson, R-LeRoy as part of this year’s state budget, the plan is to spend $39.3 million — $17.3 million of which is federal money — to lease laptop computers with wireless Internet connectivity for Michigan’s 132,000 public school sixth graders. Johnson and other legislators hope to engage kids in learning at an age when many are starting to disengage from traditional methods of instruction. Since kids use Xbox and Game Boy at home — the thinking goes — why not equip them with technology at school? Proponents point out that we are living in "the digital age" and that children will be better educated for the job market if we give them more access to technology at school. And besides, they say, the laptop is a way of extending the learning day by allowing kids to continue learning while they are on the bus or at home.

If nothing else, this proposal illustrates that government often conducts itself much like a student council meeting, with lots of well-intentioned but ill-researched and many times conflicting ideas gushing forth. In this case, the sponsors of the proposal don’t seem to have noticed that their faith in technology as educational savior is in direct conflict with a recently considered House resolution urging the governor to create a commission on student backpack safety. It would be inconsistent to expect students to add another 6-7 pounds to their load in order to bring their laptops to school.

The idea that equipping kids with laptops will somehow inspire them to become more engaged in school work has little basis in sound research. Michigan sixth-graders who can’t read at grade level (about two-thirds of them, based on various standardized test data) need instruction in reading, not in surfing the Internet or creating PowerPoint presentations. As far as extending the school day goes, who’s to say the kids will turn the laptops on or even bring them home after school? And what about families without an Internet service provider or even a telephone at home?

And then there’s the cost. If $39.3 million sounds affordable now (or even if it doesn’t), multiply that times seven, which is the number of years it will take this year’s rising sixth-graders to graduate. Since each new class of sixth-graders presumably will have to be equipped with laptops, the price tag will rise to an estimated $275 million dollars a year by the seventh year. Where is this money coming from? One source state officials are hoping for is in-kind software contributions from the private sector. State officials also hope the feds will continue paying a part. In the end though, "hoping" for money to pay for programs isn’t a sound way to approach public policy. The odds are good that Michigan taxpayers will be stuck with a large part of the bill, with the balance to be passed on to local districts, many of which already are paring budgets and laying off teachers.

Instead of risking a quarter-billion dollars a year to give computers to kids who are prone to leave their jackets at school or lose their calculators, the Legislature should focus on solving the education crisis by doing what we know works. It should add more highly-skilled teachers to classrooms and hold them accountable for results. If Michigan would simply expand school choice through tuition tax credits and/or by allowing for the creation of more charter schools, parents would be able to hold schools accountable through their choice of schools. If they wanted laptop computers for their children, they could choose a school that provided them. This would create an atmosphere of free market competition that would eventually determine, at the most efficient price, whether or not computers are effective at improving student achievement.

# # #

Brian L. Carpenter, a former independent school superintendent, is director of leadership development for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. He is the author of recent articles on school marketing and student performance published by the National Charter School Clearinghouse Review and Michigan Chamber of Commerce, respectively.