BY STATE SENATOR LARRY TEAGUE –
LITTLE ROCK – The legislature has begun the complex task of providing school districts in Arkansas with expanded broadband access.
Innovations in computers, phones and the Internet are being introduced at an ever faster pace. Schools with outdated equipment risk falling further behind those with newer technology.
One of the first steps toward providing equal educational opportunities to all Arkansas children is to complete an accurate and up-to-date survey of the capabilities of the 238 school districts in the state. The Legislative Council has ordered such a survey to be conducted, and it should be complete before the next regular session.
The survey will assess the equipment now in use by all Arkansas schools, as well as the broadband capacity that is available and at what cost. For the past year there has been an ongoing disagreement among educators, elected officials and private sector Internet providers about the availability and cost of expanded Internet access. The survey is meant to clarify exactly what is available, what is now in use and what would it cost to expand access for each school district.
In addition to school administrators and private Internet providers, there are three advocacy groups that have weighed in on the issue. One was created by the legislature last year with the approval of Act 1280. It is the Quality Digital Learning Study Committee. Its report in May was disputed by spokesmen for private providers, who contend that it was based on incomplete data.
A second group is called the FASTER Arkansas Committee. That stands for “Fast Access for Students, Teachers and Economic Results.” Business leaders created the group with encouragement from the governor.
Last week a third group joined the governor at the Capitol to announce its involvement. It is a non-profit organization called EducationSuperHighway. It is funded by private foundations and it helps states and school districts take advantage of high speed Internet to improve education.
According to a survey by EducationSuperHighway that includes 90 percent of all Arkansas school districts, the vast majority of schools purchase additional Internet capacity from private providers at an average price of $13 per megabit of Internet speed. There are 25 districts that purchase Internet access through the state Department of Information Systems (DIS) and they pay $285 per megabit even though their Internet capacity is slower. That is because the DIS connections are along copper wire, rather than fiber optic cable.
The non-profit recommended that rather than paying $15 million a year on copper wire connections, schools instead should spend the same amount for access to providers with optic lines. Doing so would go a long way toward moving Arkansas schools into a new era of high speed Internet access, the head of EducationSuperHighway said.
The survey by EducationSuperHighway found that about half of all Arkansas school districts had sufficient broadband access to meet current federal standards, compared to only 37 percent of schools nationwide.
Act 1280 not only created the Quality Digital Learning Study Committee, it also mandated that high school students take at least one interactive online course as a requirement for graduation, beginning this school year.