AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage has placed a key element of Angus King’s legacy as governor under a microscope by ordering a sweeping review of a taxpayer-funded program that provides thousands of computer devices to Maine students.

No changes have been finalized, according to Department of Education officials, who said virtually anything is possible for the program’s future.

King, an independent U.S. senator who served as governor from 1994-2002, launched the Maine Learning Technology Initiative in 2002. Since then, it has provided laptop computers or computer tablets to every seventh- and eighth-grade student in Maine, plus a range of other students in districts that have voluntarily expanded the program at their own cost.

The program equips approximately 66,000 students and teachers with computers and tablets, with some 95 percent of the devices coming from Apple Corp.

Earlier this year, after some educators were directed to turn in their computers a year early, there was speculation the LePage administration was moving to end the program.

Mike Muir, policy director of the Department of Education’s Learning Through Technology Team, which oversees the MLTI program, said during an interview Friday that the program’s future has been under review but that no major changes are imminent.

“There was a time when one of the conclusions being considered seriously was ending, but a decision had not been made,” Muir said. “That led to conversations about focusing on learning and asking questions about what else is possible in the program.”

On July 19, Muir emailed public school technology personnel throughout the state to notify them that negotiations related to an annual renewal of a contract with Apple Corp. had passed their traditional ending date but were ongoing. At the time, he urged “quiet patience” because a public debate about the process had the potential to hinder negotiations.

That renewal has since been signed.

Deputy Education Commissioner Bill Beardsley said Friday that he and LePage want to ensure that Maine receives a good return on the approximately $11.5 million annual cost in the form of improved student achievement.

“It’s a good time to regroup and think this through,” he said. “What’s in our best interest as a state? What’s the correct age group? Should we still be doing the concept of what Angus came up with or should we come up with a new concept that would be more appropriate now that our schools and everybody has a greater understanding of technology?”

Beardsley said an update to the state’s contract with Apple was signed in recent weeks. He called it a good deal for Maine because, among other reasons, it allowed some computers to be upgraded a year early without new costs to the state. That’s because Apple accepted old machines back, which defrayed costs.

LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett wrote in response to questions from the BDN that LePage has long been concerned that the program’s value has diminished when weighed against its annual cost and Maine’s flat student test scores in math and reading.

“Since its inception, the laptop program and the participating schools have focused too much on the devices (which devices schools will get, for what price, etc.) and not enough on how they are used and the student outcomes,” Bennett wrote. “The governor thinks this has been flawed from the start and that the focus needs to shift.”

Bennett said LePage wants more training for teachers in how to maximize the benefits of technology in classrooms and to possibly shift state-funded devices to lower grades with the goal of having student reach reading proficiency by the third grade.

Muir and Beardsley said changes are likely in the next one to two years and that the department hopes to hand the next governor and his or her administration a blueprint of how to continue revamping the program into the future.

“We’ve got to stand back and have a broad discussion among educators, not to give up on MLTI at all but to shift resources,” Beardsley said. “We’re going to spend a year really trying to see what’s next.”

Muir said a common misconception about MLTI is that it is just about putting computers in students’ hands when in fact the program is also supposed to provide training for educators and wireless internet access for schools. He said there is room for major improvement on both those fronts.

“The intent of MLTI was always to be a learning initiative,” Muir said. “The governor is encouraging us to get away from the notion that it’s just about devices. … Our big shift right now is let’s make this about teacher practice and impacting kids.”

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.