Here Comes Illinois!

Look out, you other forty-nine states! In another decade or two, young Illinoisans will be getting all the good jobs.

Well, OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but understandable, based upon the current conviction that more education means better jobs and greater success. (Think what Bill Gates could have made of himself had he gone to college!) And, in turn, what better guarantee of better education is there than more expensive education? That’s been proven, right?

The proposal in Illinois comes from its Lieutenant Governor, one Pat Quinn. I suspect that Lt. Governors have time on their hands, and Mr. Quinn is making the most of his, with a series of proposals and programs typical of what passes for government these days: information programs regarding carpooling, eagle watching, and something called rain gardening, as well as programs honoring Illinois’s Mexican Americans, César Chávez, and one to provide "heart-saving machines" (defibrillators?) in schools and health clubs. But his latest proposal — the one that will boost Illinois scholars to the academic pinnacle — is to provide free laptop computers to every 7th grader in the state, which the kids will be able to keep until they finish high school, six years later. That’s 169,000 laptops, folks.

It will cost a pretty penny to buy 169,000 laptop computers, and funding presents a problem. One proposed solution was to reduce the commission paid to retailers for collecting sales taxes. The retailers objected! Imagine: objecting to getting less pay for performing involuntary service! As a result of the complaints of these selfish merchants, the scheme was dropped, and alternative funding measures are being sought. (Could it be that Lt. Governor Quinn is too politically inexperienced to realize that the state can take anyone’s money, anytime, for whatever reason, and by whatever method it chooses? After all, that’s what it means to govern.) Quinn’s office is seeking a legislator to introduce this computers-for-kids bill with a funding provision that won’t arouse the ire of any particular special interest group. The result will be the same: Illinoisans being compelled to provide computers (estimated cost: 300 each) for children they’ve never met and never will meet; but Illinoisans not sufficiently connected to constitute a discreet lobby.

Once purchased, the laptops will be dumped in the laps of school administrators throughout the state, who will decide how to use them. Maine already has such a program, and Ted Gibbs, of Quinn’s office, says it has been an unqualified success. "They’ve seen an increase in student engagement, fewer discipline problems. They’ve seen standardized test scores in writing go up." Well, the improvement in test scores in writing may be because the word-processing program corrects the student’s abysmal spelling, and even offers grammar hints. And, of course, with the computers to play with, the students are more "engaged," and less troublesome in class. But are they learning anything? Will they be able to write a coherent paragraph sans computer?

The old saw "the dog ate my homework" will be replaced with "my computer crashed." Therefore, there will be, in this scheme, technical support teams to keep the things running, and professional development classes for teachers who aren’t computer savvy, or might actually think they could teach without the electronic devices. The cost of the computers themselves, approximately 50 million (I figured that out without a computer) is only the beginning, in other words.

A doff of the hat to Lt. Governor Quinn! A program providing greater dependency upon the state is every politician’s goal. And since education — at someone else’s expense, of course — is seen in much of our society as the first step on the road to Utopia, the taxpayers of Illinois may well bear the cost with minimal complaint. And, should the graduates of computer-enhanced education reveal themselves as unlettered and ignorant as in the past, it will only prove that more and better computers are needed, and special classes in their use for the teachers. A never-ending, always growing program!

I wouldn’t be surprised if Pat Quinn were to throw his hat in the ring in the next gubernatorial election in Illinois. He will be, after all, the candidate who brought computers into Illinois schools — with the promise that if the program were successful, all students in grades 7 through 12 would get them. And he introduced programs to honor César Chávez, encourage rain gardens, and put heart-saving machines in health clubs.

What more could the people of Illinois want in a governor?

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.