The state's first-in-the-nation laptop program may be going iPad.
Maine is negotiating five options for its next Maine Learning Technology Initiative contract. For the past seven years, that program has placed Apple MacBook laptops in the hands of every seventh- and eighth-grader in the state.
Two new options include computer tablets for the first time.
"The last time we did a bid, nobody made them — they didn't exist yet," said Jeff Mao, the Maine Department of Education's learning technology policy director.
State officials expect to pick the winning lease option in the next few weeks.
It's now a debate of pros, cons and costs.
"I think there's still a lot of folks who are comfortable with what laptops do, understand them," Mao said. "I think there's also a lot of folks who are looking at tablets and saying, 'This is the way of the future.'"
He added, "The challenge is, for everything that you can try to defend that a laptop is better because it does 'blank,' you'll find something else, 'But on a tablet, you can do blank.'"
The state put out a request for proposals last fall, DOE spokesman David Connerty-Marin said. It asked for certain parameters — educational software, ability to access the Internet — without specifying the type of computer.
"We tell them what we want to accomplish educationally," he said.
Sixteen proposals came in, winnowed to five: the Apple iPad, Apple MacBook Air, Hewlett-Packard ProBook, Hewlett-Packard ElitePad and CTL Classmate PC Netbook.
Apple iPads came in the lowest at $217 per machine, per year. The other computers range from $250 to $300.
The cost of the current contract is $242 per machine, per year, for 70,000 MacBooks, Mao said.
About 30,000 laptops are in grades seven and eight, paid for by the state. Another 25,000 are in grades nine to 12; about half of Maine high schools opt to purchase them for those upper grades and share the cost with the state. Another roughly 15,000 are with teachers.
This is the first time the state has negotiated multiple potential contracts at once, Mao said. It's also the first time Maine has opened the process to other states: After the five contracts have been negotiated, other states will be able to step in and buy the machines at those prices, either as a state or as school districts.
"Our hope is that it increases the likelihood that other states will do this style of work, which will then increase the number of people we can then collaborate with, things like sharing curriculum or sharing teacher professional development methods," Mao said.
Making the final decision is Mao's team, the commissioner's office and the Governor's Office.
"We're balancing a lot of different competing interests, between budgetary challenges, educational value of the solution, supportability of the solution, actual usability, all of these things," Mao said.
Whichever contract the state deems the winner, Maine school districts don't have to commit to that option, but most likely will, Connerty-Marin said.
At the end of this school year, the current four-year-old Apple MacBooks are being offered to districts for $47 each. Leftover machines will be sold through state surplus.