Adam Satariano
Bloomberg News

Julie Garcia handed Apple Inc. iPads to students in her seventh-grade pre-algebra class on a recent morning before showing the pupils how to use the tablet to graph data, hunt for correlations and record how-to videos.

A math instructor at Innovation Middle School, Garcia is one of the first to use some of the more than 25,000 iPads that the San Diego Unified School District bought from Apple this year.

“It’s the cool factor,” Garcia said as she looks over the room of students tapping energetically on tablets. “They are super motivated.”

For districts around the country, though, it’s the price as much as the cool quotient that could draw them to the new, smaller version of the iPad that Apple has introduced.

Apple has long been a leader in education, and schools began embracing the iPad soon after its 2010 debut. Yet as fiscal budget shortfalls crimp spending all the more, schools in growing numbers are warming to the handheld devices as an alternative to more expensive laptops.

Now schools, as well as consumers, got another big price break: The starting sale price of the smaller iPad will be $329. That compares with $499 to $829 for the current iPad.

Beyond the school market, Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook will use the device to try to widen Apple’s lead over Amazon.com Inc. and Google Inc. and fend off a more recent threat from Microsoft Corp. in the market for tablets.

Research firm NPD DisplaySearch predicts the market will more than double to $162 billion by 2017. The new iPad mini has a 7.9-inch screen diagonally compared with the current iPad’s 9.7-inch screen.

iPad shift

Apple executives make a point of highlighting the iPad’s educational capabilities and it’s little wonder. Education spending on information technology, including hardware, was about $19.7 billion in the 2010-2011 period, according to the Center for Digital Education.

Educators’ bets on tablets mirror a trend in the broader consumer-electronics market, where consumers are buying iPads instead of traditional personal computers. PC sales in grades K-12 fell 8 percent in the U.S. last quarter, the third straight decline, research firm Gartner said.

“We’re moving away from desktops and laptops,” said James Ponce, the superintendent of the McAllen Independent School District in Texas. “Ninety percent of the work is now being done on mobile devices.”

The education push is part of a strategy put in place under the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, before the iPad was introduced in 2010. While Apple has a history of selling Mac computers to schools, the company realigned its education sales force to emphasize iPads.

Innovation Middle School has traditionally used Lenovo Group Ltd. computers because Macs are too expensive, said Harlan Klein, the school’s principal.

“They were cost prohibitive,” Klein said. “With the iPad, they are competitive.”

The new iPad comes at a critical time for Apple. Sales of smart phones have been constrained by supply constraints.

Apple is also facing fresh competition in tablets from Microsoft, which on Friday released the Surface tablet device, its first foray into hardware.

Apple had about 70 percent of the market in the second quarter, compared with Samsung Electronics Co., which had 9.2 percent, and Amazon’s 4.2 percent, according to IHS ISuppli.

Courting educators

To woo educators, Apple’s sales staff meets regularly with school administrators and procurement officers across the U.S. The company has sales staff assigned to work with schools in particular regions of the U.S., and pays for district officials to visit Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., to learn about new products.

“Apple has got the world’s biggest education sales force, they have a great device and they have a long history in education,” said Tyler Bosmeny, the CEO of Clever Inc., an education software company. “This is absolutely something that they would be crazy to ignore.”

“Once these tablets get in to the $200 to $300 range we are going to see a real aggressive uptake in the K-12 market,” said Vineet Madan, a senior vice president at McGraw-Hill Cos. education unit.

To save money, San Diego’s school district bought iPad 2s after Apple dropped the price of that model when the newest version was introduced earlier this year.

Drawing on funds raised through a voter-approved bond measure, the district spent about $370 on each iPad, which comes pre-loaded with various educational applications, said Courtney Browne, a technology resource teacher at San Diego Unified School District.

Besides budgetary constraints, a major challenge for schools is training teachers and managing all the new equipment and software. If a teacher wants to use an iPad math application, synchronizing a classroom of devices and monitoring all the students’ work can be time consuming. In San Diego, a team of eight employees helps train teachers and manage new technology.

“A lot of the time we see people putting technology in the classroom to be innovative, but it ends up being more work for teachers, not less,” said Bosmeny.