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Birmingham May Buy 15,000 Low-Cost Laptops

If $200 laptop computers are good for kids in Peru and Mongolia, why not Alabama?

Birmingham's City Council has approved a $3.5 million plan to provide schoolchildren with 15,000 computers produced by the nonprofit One Laptop Per Child Foundation, which aims to spread laptops to poor children in developing countries.

The foundation says the deal marks the first time a U.S. city has agreed to buy the machines, which also are headed to such countries as Rwanda, Thailand, Brazil and Mexico in addition to Peru and Mongolia.

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Birmingham's school board still must agree to the deal, and some members have reservations. They want more evidence that computers designed for the African bush or the mountains of South America would be a good fit for an American city.

Reviews of the foundation's green-and-white "XO" laptops have been mixed, with praise for their simplicity, ruggedness and low price but complaints that U.S. children may be turned off by the machines' particular configuration.

The user interface is built on the Linux operating system rather than the more familiar Windows.

In hopes of getting past such objections, the City Council agreed to spend $3 million buying machines from Cambridge, Mass.-based One Laptop Per Child and to give schools $500,000 to sort out technical issues.

A laptop will be available for every child in grades 1 through 8.

Mayor Larry Langford, who pushed for bringing XOs to Birmingham and hopes to see them distributed by the fall, said the machines will give many inner-city children their first access to a computer.

About 80 percent of the system's 28,000 students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and the schools are dealing with declining enrollment and funding shortages. The board recently voted to close 16 of its 65 schools.

Birmingham school board member Virginia S. Volker likes the idea of laptops for students. But she said Langford didn't think through the plan before committing millions of tax dollars to pay for the machines.

Birmingham schools lack wireless networks needed to get the laptops online, she said, and the system doesn't have enough technology workers to train teachers, much less students, on the computers.

"Thinking of public money, I am very reluctant to make a commitment on this until we are sure we can afford it," Volker said.