Students and educators were at the State House Monday.

AUGUSTA (AP) – Elana Siegel, a seventh grader at Moore Middle School in Portland, said she’s learning how the stock market works and how human cells divide with the help of her laptop computer.

“I can’t imagine going to school and not having a laptop,” Siegel said Monday in defense of a plan to expand Maine’s 7th and 8th grade program to all four high school grades over the next two years.

Angie Giorgetti, a ninth grader at Edward Little High School in Auburn, learned this school year what it’s like to be without her laptop in class.

“Awful,” Giorgetti said. “I really miss it.”

The students joined a coalition of local and state educators and business groups at an overflow legislative hearing who defended Maine’s pioneering laptop program as not just a nicety, but a necessity.

“By any measure, the Maine laptop program is a success story,” David Brenerman, board chairman of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and father of a seventh grader, told the Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs.

The committee scheduled the hearing because Baldacci’s proposal marks a major expansion of the program, which is now in its second year and has drawn attention from across the country and abroad.

Committee members also wanted to take up the issue in a public session because it surfaces as the Legislature considers budget-balancing cuts in programs that help the poor and disabled.

“We’ll probably always struggle with budgets,” said Barbara Eretzian, superintendent of Auburn schools and president of the Maine School Superintendents Association. “But we have to find a way to make this happen.”

Education commissioner Susan Gendron said the expansion can be achieved through a funding scheme she outlined. The state would begin with a one-time allocation of $8 million from the state’s Revolving Renovation fund to pay for the wireless network, servers and related infrastructure.

The total cost through mid-2008 would be at least an additional $72 million. The state would assume at least 55 percent of the total cost, while local districts would pay 45 percent or less.

The state envisions extending the contract it has with Apple computers, which provided 33,000 iBooks to middle schools for the current program.

Gendron said the state stands to leverage savings by squeezing the expansion into two years rather than four as she proposed earlier.

The expanded program, which would not be mandatory, would extend to the first two high school grades starting next fall and to the two highest grades the following year. It would not be mandatory for the districts.

The success of the laptop program, which was first proposed by former Gov. Angus King, did not come into question during Monday’s hearing, and opposition to the expansion was muted.

Jim Brown of Chelsea questioned whether it’s right to spend more money for the program when cuts are being considered to Medicaid programs.

The co-chairwoman of the education committee, Sen. Neria Douglass, D-Auburn, said she also has concerns about the message new laptop spending would send about the state’s priorities as lawmakers consider cuts in social services.

The Appropriations Committee will make a final recommendation on funding for the expansion, and the Legislature and governor will get the final word.

But the state Board of Education registered its unequivocal support for the expansion. The Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education went further, saying expansion of what is formally known as the Maine Learning Technology Initiative “is not an option, it is an imperative.”

“We believe continuing the ‘laptop program’ is an obligation to these students, who will be held to graduation standards more rigorous than those for any other students in our nation’s history,” the coalition chairman, Peter Geiger, said in a memorandum to the committee.

AP-ES-04-05-04 1619EDT

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