The fight over whether to allow K-12 schools to connect to ARE-ON, the state-run fiber optic network for public colleges and universities, suffers from a strange shortfall of hard facts. At the center of it is the question of whether or not there is actually a major deficiency in broadband access in Arkansas schools. Broadband providers — AT&T, Windstream, etc — say there’s not. Private industry can serve the needs of schools just fine, they insist. The Department of Education (ADE) and FASTERArkansas, a coalition of education and other business interests, says schools are struggling with low connection speeds and high costs, and that competition from ARE-ON would change the equation.
ADE brought four rural superintendents before the Education Committee on Monday to tell legislators that yes, districts do indeed want and need better internet service. Central talking point from the school leaders: it’s all about giving schools a choice. J. Carroll Purtle, superintendent of Wonderview School District, was among those advocating for a repeal of the current law that prohibits districts from using the state network.
“It might be cheaper; it might not be cheaper,” said Purtle. “I can’t tell you if I want to be ARE-ON or not until I see the bottom line…but I can tell you that in most other states it’s cheaper on their state system.” Wonderview, which has about 430 students, currently has an internet connection of 4.5 Mbps; the minimum recommended bandwidth for a district is 50 Mbps. Like many small districts, Wonderview has only one possible internet provider — Windstream — and Purtle claims that the needs of the district have been perennially ignored by the company. To boost the district’s connection to 50 Mbps, it would have to agree to a four-year contract with Windstream that would cost over $98,000, or around $4,800/month. (Providers insist on such contracts when building out to rural areas to ensure it will be worth their while to pay for the construction cost of laying new fiber in the ground.)
It’s hard to see where this is all going. FASTERArkansas, which has the backing of the Walton Foundation and other powerful groups, has been busily cranking out a PR campaign in support of changing the law, including upcoming town hall meetings across the state. One of its leaders, Jerry Jones of Acxiom, has said that he’s pulling for the governor to call another special session before year’s end. Gov. Mike Beebe is on FASTERArkansas’s side, and since the next regular legislative session won’t start until January, a special session is the only way he could see action on the issue before he leaves office.
Then again, Beebe has always refused to consider a special session unless there’s clear evidence of the votes needed to pass specific, pre-drafted legislation. Whether because of the technical complexities of the issue or the sensitive politics, most legislators on the Education committee still seem wholly undecided. Sen. Johnny Key (R – Mountain Home), the chair of the committee, has established himself as one of the legislature’s most authoritative voices on education policy — but he seems thoroughly frustrated on the inaction over a solution to the broadband dispute.
“I don’t know who to believe,” said Key at one point during questions, “and I think that goes for most of us here.”
Support for education reporting provided by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.