While business leaders and educators have embarked on an effort to understand and solve a broadband shortage in the state’s public schools, lawmakers will have a final say on signing off on a plan.
Earlier this month, Gov. Mike Beebe (D) convened two working groups – Fast Access for Students, Teachers and Economic Results (FASTER) and the Quality Digital Learning Study (QDLS) committee – to find ways to boost broadband access to nearly 460,000 Arkansas K-12 students.
According to the Arkansas Department of Information Services (DIS), only a handful of the state’s public schools may have a nationally recommended broadband capability of 100 Mbps per 1,000 students and staff. The average Arkansas school district with 1,800 students currently has 40 Mbps of bandwidth and needs at least 140 Mbps more, the department concluded. Business leaders with leading Internet Service Providers (ISPs) contend the situation is not nearly as negative as the DIS report projected.
Without the necessary bandwidth, Arkansas public schools could be in jeopardy of failing to meet forthcoming Common Core testing standards and perhaps, more importantly, students and teachers could miss out on new digital academic opportunities that are redefining the education delivery system.
THE TIMES ARE A-CHANGIN’
Dr. Ed Franklin, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Two-year Colleges and chairman of the QDLS group, says a revolution in education is clearly underway due to technological advancements.
K-12 students are the pipeline for two-year and four-year colleges in the state and Franklin is keenly aware that those graduates must have the skill sets to be employable eventually.
“How do we provide the tools to the schools for the students so that we can provide that workforce of the future?” he asks. “It used to be that the teacher and the textbook were the possessor of all knowledge. You sat there in the classroom and read your textbook and listened to your teacher and that was your knowledge. It’s not the case today.”
While traditional classes remain, students at all levels are now taking online courses or participate in distance learning. Arkansas lawmakers passed an act last session requiring every public school district and public charter school in Arkansas to create a pilot program of at least one digital learning course for students to take.
In higher education circles, MOOC’s (Massive Open Online Courses) are an increasingly popular concept that provide large-scale interactive participation from students and teachers at different locations around the world via the web. As it develops, the concept could easily become experimental in K-12 levels.
Many of these growing and diverse online offerings require scores of videos per course and educators predict that whole degrees may someday be obtained without ever cracking a textbook.
“The whole discussion about how we teach is changing, but it’s all based around having that broadband access,” Franklin says.
As chairman of the QDLS committee, Franklin said he’s focused on addressing the first task at hand: identifying the broadband data capabilities throughout the state.
“The first thing we have to do is find data that we can all agree is good data,” he says.
Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, chairman of the Senate Education Committee and Vice-chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, also sits on the QDLS committee. He agrees with a sentiment shared by Franklin and many Internet providers that say a more complete assessment of available broadband access is the first step in finding a solution.
“I think that’s the biggest challenge and one of the first goals we have to meet. We have to determine what is out there,” Key said. “Providers tell me that they have facilities, they have everything built out in most areas of the state to provide what is needed. The districts, on the other hand, tell us that we don’t have what we need and it’s not just for Common Core, it’s for other education delivery, different distance learning opportunities. This is completely my opinion and observation, but I think it’s a communication problem. I’m not sure the [school] districts’ IT folks and the providers are speaking the same language and vice-versa.”
Key’s eyes were opened to the problem when he filed a bill in the 2013 regular session to provide a partial solution to the broadband access issue. He sought to give K-12 schools permission to tie into the state’s ARE-ON system, which is an ultra high-speed fiber optic network connecting four-year and two-year colleges and universities as well as UAMS and a plethora of health care touchpoints throughout the state and nation.
The primary purpose of ARE-ON (Arkansas Research and Education Optical Network) is for collaborative higher education research and telemedicine.
“When I filed that bill to open ARE-ON up to K-12, I found that providers and educators had never really sat down in a room together and had a discussion,” Key said.
He wants to be careful now in tapping into ARE-ON to solve the K-12 bandwidth dilemma. Key said he wants to avoid having a public entity provide a service that private enterprise is capable of offering in a cost-effective manner.
Beebe has indicated he’s willing to push for a change to state law that currently prohibits a government entity from providing “directly or indirectly” broadband service in competition with the private sector as it relates to ARE-ON.
“There are current restrictions, statutorily – which I understand and I know where it came from,” Beebe said. “So I’m giving the private sector the opportunity to step up and do right and help us solve these problems and invest and that’s the first option. There’s always the option that those restrictions could be removed, you know.”
Rep. James McLean, D-Batesville, is chairman of the House Education Committee and is a member of the Joint Budget Committee. Also a member of the QDLS group, McLean thinks the working groups will fashion a reasonable solution to the problem in advance of 2014′s fiscal legislative session. That meeting of the General Assembly will give lawmakers a chance to address funding challenges of the broadband equation as well as potentially address any policy changes that could be required.
“From what I’m gathering, I feel like there’s going to be something coming down the pike in the next several months that we’ll be able to take to the fiscal session,” he said. “I think it will be equitable and fair and is going to be able to address the broadband issue and the Common Core issue in these rural districts that just have no broadband capacity.”
McLean is a solid supporter of the controversial Common Core initiative, which will begin testing in Arkansas public schools in 2014. The testing is believed to require the expanded bandwidth that DIS says is lacking, but Internet service providers say can largely be provided.
“Over time, I think we’ll look back 10 or 15 years from now and look at Common Core and look at the introduction of technology that comes with Common Core and I think it will have a very positive unintended consequence – the introduction of broadband and digital capabilities to very, very small rural schools and everything that comes with that in terms of content and instructional material. .. There’s just a big upside to it,” McLean says.
THE PRICE TAG & POLITICAL WILL
A big question mark in the broadband discussion that is unlikely to be settled for months is the price tag for the improvements.
Schools will have to pony up. ISPs will have to make additional investments. The state of Arkansas will most certainly be asked to contribute with one-time and ongoing money.
Early estimates peg the costs at anywhere from $17 million to $765 million to public and private entities; however, there is universal consensus that until the assessment of the broadband availability comes back, a price tag is merely speculative.
For McLean, the funding debate comes back to equity and fairness.
“You don’t want wealthy districts in one part of the state that have incredible access to digital technologies and then you have small school districts in rural areas that do not,” he contends.
“In my opinion, there will have to be some subsidy in these areas of the state where there is just no access and it’s not profitable to go in there and provide access. That’s why they’re not there in the first place,” McLean added.
Franklin explains that he is truly in “blank slate” mode. No preconceived plan exists, he insists. It may take a public-private partnership, it may take a statewide plan with regional sub-plans, he says.
While some communities – large and small – may already have infrastructure that just needs to be activated, others will require new investments, he predicts. The lay of the land may literally dictate what type of technology is most cost-effective for providing more bandwidth.
“What happens with connectivity, for example, in the Delta where you could do point-to-point fixed wireless, you couldn’t do that in the Ozarks. We have to be creative with this,” Franklin suggests.
Key argues that legislators won’t sign off on any price tag without a well-developed plan for meeting the goals of expanded bandwidth in public schools. He wants to make sure that the schools’ needs are identified properly with what’s available from broadband providers.
“Inertia in government is a tough thing to overcome. Right now, everyone is saying, ‘Yes, we’re willing to work together to get this done.’ I believe they are. I just don’t know what hurdles we’re gong to encounter. Until we know that, the timing of the funding is really hard to measure,” Key said.
“We know that it’s going to cost money,” he added. “Whether that is new funding or a re-prioritization of technology funding already in place through the matrix, through other sources, that’s a conversation we’ll have to have.”