story by Roby Brock, with Talk Business & Politics, a content partner with The City Wire
A statewide survey conducted last week found that a strong majority of Arkansans are persuaded by a variety of arguments to increase broadband access to K-12 schools and students.
The poll of 600 registered voters was conducted Aug. 25-27 by Washington, D.C.-based Winston Group on behalf of FASTER Arkansas, a working group formed by Gov. Mike Beebe after education policymakers determined that most Arkansas schools did not have adequate broadband capabilities to participate in online Common Core testing or to take advantage of the internet for instructional purposes.
FASTER Arkansas is comprised of business leaders calling for the state’s public schools to connect to a university-based high-speed network called ARE-ON, a high-speed fiber optics network connecting Arkansas public colleges and universities, health care providers and others. Public schools are not allowed to connect to ARE-ON under Act 1050 of 2011, which was passed with support by the state’s telecommunications industry.
Several key poll results from the FASTER survey included:
• 69% support a proposal to amend state law to allow K-12 educational institutions to connect to “an existing high speed Internet network” through a public-private partnership. Just 19% opposed and 12% were undecided.
• 71% believe that allowing the ARE-ON expansion would level the playing field by reducing the cost of high speed Internet for school districts statewide, including rural and low income areas.
• 81% said it would increase students’ access to the Internet and would create a better educated workforce and provide more jobs.
• 61% support holding a special session to change the state law to allow the ARE-ON expansion. Roughly 34% oppose a special session and just 5% are undecided.
Last month, Gov. Mike Beebe said that the state’s public schools could tap $15 million it already spends annually on outdated copper networks along with federal funds to connect schools to a high-speed fiber optic broadband network. The existing revenue stream could generate approximately $45 million over the next three years for the broadband extension.
EducationSuperHighway, a national nonprofit that works to expand internet access in schools, has been partnering with the state Department of Education to study the issue and is working with Arkansas to expand access as part of a pilot project that also includes Virginia.
EducationSuperHighway CEO Evan Marwell said last month that Arkansas can become the first state to meet the national ConnectED goal, announced by President Obama last summer, of connecting 99% of American students to at least 100 megabits per second with a target of one gigabit per second within five years.