BY STATE REPRESENTATIVE NATE BELL –
This is the week when most Arkansas public schools begin the new school year. Please use caution on the roads as children and buses are getting back into their routines. Let’s all do our part to have a safe start to another school year by exercising extra care when we’re driving and especially when we are in and around school zones. I hope you’ll join me in a daily prayer for a safe and successful school year for the parents, students, staff, teachers and administrators.
Arkansas has made substantial progress in improving the quality and equity of educational opportunities in our state but we still have a long way to go before every child has full access to high quality world class learning. One of the important steps toward ensuring educational opportunity for all Arkansas children is to complete an accurate and up-to-date survey of the technology capabilities of the 238 school districts in the state. The Arkansas Legislative Council has ordered a this comprehensive survey, and it is scheduled to be completed before the next regular legislative session.
The survey will assess the networking equipment now in use by all Arkansas schools, as well as the available broadband capacity and cost. There is a long running disagreement among educators, elected officials and private sector Internet providers about the availability and cost of expanded internet access. The survey is needed to provide objective information about exactly what is available, what is now in use and to determine the cost of expanded access for each school district.
Arkansas has the opportunity to be a national leader in online education and internet connectivity in public schools. A recent survey by Education Super-Highway found that about half of all Arkansas school districts have sufficient broadband access to meet current federal standards, compared to only 37 percent of schools nationwide. While that is a great start, we must work together to ensure that all students have access to the opportunities and options available online.
Expanded access doesn’t necessarily require more money. Last week, the non-profit Education Super Highway held a press conference with Gov. Beebe and shared a survey of 90 percent of all Arkansas school districts. The survey indicated that the vast majority of public schools purchase internet capacity from private providers at an average price of $13 per megabit. There are 25 districts that purchase Internet access through the state Department of Information Systems (DIS) and those districts pay $285 per megabit even though their capacity is slower. The non-profit recommended that rather than paying $15 million per year to maintain old copper wire connections, schools instead should spend the same amount for access to providers with optic lines.
Reliable high speed internet service is critical not only for our education system, it is essential for job creation and sustainability. Rural areas of our state continue to be underserved despite the millions of dollars that have been directed to enhancing availability.
I am continuing to advocate for a measured approach to improving our technology infrastructure. For too long, the attitude has been to spend money due to political pressure but without a clearly defined objective and an implementable plan to reach the target. The survey that is currently in progress will provide legislators with the objective data that we need to make the decisions we’ll make during the 2015 session. I appreciate the leadership Speaker-elect Gillam has shown on this issue. There is strong bi-partisan support for better technology infrastructure and I’m confident that we will soon see substantial progress.