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Expanding Broadband to All Public Schools Remains Priority

BY STATE SENATOR LARRY TEAGUE –

LITTLE ROCK – Arkansas must move quickly to take advantage of available federal grants worth up to $30 million, according to a non-profit organization that is working with the state Education Department to expand broadband access in public schools.

In order to keep schools competitive and to provide Arkansas students with better opportunities in the modern economy, educators, elected officials and business leaders have been working to make the Internet more readily available to every student.

A national non-profit organization called EducationSuperHighway has partnered with the Arkansas Education Department to improve Internet access in schools. One of the group’s first moves was to complete a thorough survey of existing Internet capacity in public schools. According to a spokesman for EducationSuperHighway, the results were surprisingly good.

Previous surveys ranked Arkansas extremely low compared to other states in terms of Internet access, but those surveys were not exhaustive. After contacting 99 percent of Arkansas schools, EducationSuperHighway found that 58 percent had sufficient broadband access to meet federal recommendations for 2015. That compares to 37 percent nationwide.

The recommendation is that each school be able to provide each student with 100 kilobits of access. A kilobit is a unit that measures how much data a computer can store and transfer.  Internet web sites have combined the functions of computers, television, telephones and other communications devices. Therefore, it takes ever greater capacity to store and move data in order to take advantage of the Internet’s potential.

Previous surveys ranked Arkansas schools according to how much Internet access the state was paying for, and did not take into account the additional access that school districts were purchasing on their own.

During the 2015 regular session that begins January 12, the legislature is expected to consider proposals to change the funding process for broadband access in public schools. Providing access through copper cables is generally more expensive and not as up-to-date as providing access through fiber optic cables.

EducationSuperHighway has suggested re-allocating funds now spent on copper cables to match federal grants and generate additional funding for modern fiber optic cables. The governor has echoed the idea by including it in a news release posted on his web site.

Legislators will study the issue more deeply at a meeting later this month of the Senate and House Education Committees and the Joint Committee on Advanced Communications and Information Technology.

There are political pitfalls anytime the legislature tries to change traditional funding procedures for public schools, partly because individual districts don’t have equal local revenue to match state funds.

Some school districts have plenty of local wealth and some are relatively poor.  Some districts tax themselves at a high rate, but because their tax base is relatively low they don’t generate as much local revenue as wealthier districts with lower tax rates. Some relatively wealthy districts tax themselves at a high rate and generate lots of local revenue for new technology and teacher salaries.

The installation costs of fiber optic cable are greater in isolated areas, so providing broadband access is not uniform across the state.

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