By Nick Worth
A $15 per student fee, to be paid by school districts across the state, was proposed by Gov. Jan Brewer as part of her executive budget for 2015.
In the budget summary, Brewer’s office notes that. “Internet access for education is severely deficient across the state, and schools are paying significantly more than other markets.”
The report goes on to note that, “the standard data rate is 100 Mbps, compared to the 12 Mbps median data rate of Arizona schools.”
The budget document states that currently only 11 percent of Arizona schools meet that national standard.
“This lack of sufficient broadband availability leaves schools without access to critical resources and makes transition to an online assessment difficult, if not impossible, for more than 40 percent of Arizona’s schools,” the report states.
The online assessment referred to in the budget summary is for implementation of the Common Core standards, or Partnership for Assessment and Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test, which requires online testing and so needs a higher data rate than is available in most Arizona schools.
According to Brewer’s Executive Budget recommendations, the $15 per student fee would provide about $15 million in funds per year, and would be assessed on school districts and charter schools by the Arizona Department of Administration (ADOA) for the next six years.
“I’m not sure why schools would be paying that fee,” said Snowflake Unified School District Superintendent Hollis Merrell. He noted that schools would not be the only entities to benefit from increased broadband in an area, and a statement in Brewer’s report agrees.
“In addition to the educational benefits, investment in broadband can yield positive economic benefits, particularly for rural areas, as greater broadband availability spurs business development,” the report states.
“I thought providing infrastructure was a government responsibility,” Merrell said.
Doug Watson, superintendent of the Winslow Unified School District, said that so far his district is in good shape for broadband capability.
“We seem to be good enough for what we’re doing, though there’s room for improvement,” said Watson. “We won’t know until we do the PARCC test later in the spring. We’ll have a better idea at that time where we’re at.”
Watson said the biggest issue with the proposed student fee is that state education is already underfunded.
“They’re going to give us our inflation funding, then turn around and take part of it back,” Watson said. He said the $15 per student fee would affect equipment funding, teacher hires, classroom supplies and other school necessities.
With 2,000-plus students in the Winslow School District, Brewer’s plan would call for a district payment of a little over $30,000 to the ADOA, Watson said.
“If they’re really concerned about that (broadband in every school) the state should pony up some money, rather than taking it from the limited funds they’re giving K-12 education already,” Watson said. “It’s like you put food on your children’s plates and then say, ‘Oh, by the way, you’re not going to get meat today,’ and then you take that back.
“If they fund the inflation rate and then turn around and take it away, it’s like they didn’t fund it in the first place,” Watson said. “They’re giving it to us, but not letting us keep it.”
He said the need is definitely coming for increased broadband in the state’s schools.
“I don’t know if it’s that necessary in Winslow yet, but other rural schools are in need of it,” said Watson.
Brewer’s budget summary goes on to compare the current state of Arizona schools with schools in Utah, where an extensive fiber optic network has brought broadband to 95 percent of school campuses. By comparison, only 11 percent of Arizona schools are connected.
“Utah spends about $19.6 million per year for 800,000 students and has an average data rate of 1 Gbps per K-12 campus,” the report reads. “In comparison, Arizona spends about $22.1 million for 1.1 million students and significantly slower access. Arizona is paying almost as much as Utah per student for Internet access, but is receiving significantly less for its investment.”
In her budget summary, Brewer said the ADOA holds an Internet service provider contract that schools and other public agencies use, which expires in October 2014. She goes on to recommend the new contract include performance standard requirements that will require fiber network development.
The estimated cost to build out the fiber optic network is $350 million over six years, and the report states that completion of the project will put 100 percent of urban schools and 50 percent of rural schools at the national standard of 100 Mbps, with a goal of 95 percent meeting the standard within five years.
The state legislature is the body that will make decisions on school funding issues, as well as the proposed student fee, so Brewer’s recommendation may be in for a tough fight as the legislature tries to decide who should pay the bill for broadband expansion throughout the state.
Administrators of school districts which already have installed broadband will not want to pay for it a second time through the proposed student fees. There is also the matter of the business interests and other government entities which would benefit from the network, and which would need to carry part of the cost.
In the end, though, broadband expansion will have to be done. Arizona is said to be up to 20 years behind other states, such as Utah, in building out the broadband network.
Merrell and Watson both summed up the issue.
“If the state expects us to give the PARCC test, then we have to have it (increased broadband),” Merrell said.
“It’s like the CPS (Child Protective Services) issue,” Watson said. “The state eventually came up with money for a solution and that’s what they need to do here. They need to establish a fund and put all schools in the state on an equal footing as far as broadband goes.”
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By Nick Worth