As the doors of our schools closed this spring, most Arkansas families transitioned from students physically going to school to educational content coming to their home via the Internet. But how does a student keep up with their peers if there is no high-speed Internet access at home?
The circumstances of the coronavirus demonstrate the need to strengthen the relationships between education and Internet access in Arkansas. Many of us take for granted the speed and constant availability of broadband in our homes and workplaces, but many Arkansans do not share in that access. And this is especially true for many rural areas.
If we are going to push back against the tyranny of geography, rectify inequities in our education system, raise up our educational outcomes and erect the foundation for a stronger economy, then we must come together and commit to providing universal access to high-speed Internet to every family in Arkansas, regardless of where they live or the money they make.
Internet access is an essential doorway to ever-increasing amounts of information, knowledge and educational resources. Where that digital door is closed, students are disadvantaged. When the virus closed schools' physical doors, the gaps of access became visible. Estimates from the American Community Survey show that in some Arkansas school districts, up to 64 percent of kids won't have the technology or the access to successfully participate in Internet-based alternative instruction.
Recognizing the importance of keeping our students "connected," many different organizations are presently working hard to fill connectivity gaps--signs in Fort Smith pointing to good Wi-Fi hot spots, Internet service providers supplying Wi-Fi hot spots in school parking lots, school districts providing "Wi-Fi on Wheels." These are all wonderful actions, but at the same time they point out that we have a ways to go in getting broadband in every home in Arkansas.
We shouldn't let the disruption caused by covid-19 derail our progress. In fact, as we begin to organize the resources needed to reboot our educational system, let's take the time to re-imagine what it would look like if every child had access to high-speed Internet in their home. Governor Hutchinson and the Legislature should find ways to target some of the resources dedicated to recovery for that process of re-imagination.
Arkansas has led the way before. Twenty years ago, Arkansas' higher-education institutions came together to create ARE-ON, one of the nation's first statewide high-speed networks. In 2014, the group FASTER Arkansas advocated getting broadband into every public school in Arkansas. When Governor Hutchinson came into office, he found a way to get it done--and as a result Arkansas was recognized as leading the nation in public school Internet connectivity in 2018.
In 2019, our Legislature made it possible for municipalities to create their own local Internet options in partnership with existing Internet service providers. Last May, the governor set the goal to expand access to all communities in the state with more than 500 people.
We are making progress, but every school day that a family does not have connectivity is a day of education that is lost. Without a specific commitment to universal access for all kids, many families and communities will still be left out.
Arkansas is moving in the right direction. But we need to go bigger and faster to catch up, get ahead and stay ahead.
For instance, the president of the Alabama Senate recently said he wants to use $800 million of the money Alabama is receiving for coronavirus aid for broadband expansion. Wow. Who knows whether enough political will exists to make that happen, but compare it to the $4.7 million in grants that the Arkansas Rural Connect program will issue to expand high-speed broadband in our rural areas.
Universal broadband access in this time is akin to access to electricity in the 1930s. The commitment was made then that no one should or would be left in the dark. We can do it again, so let's make the commitment to turn on the broadband at every home and enhance the chances for a brighter future for all Arkansans, but especially for Arkansas students.
Jerry Jones is a member of the ForwARd Arkansas Board of Directors and serves as chief legal and ethics officer, as well as executive vice president, at LiveRamp, an enterprise customer management software company.
Editorial on 05/14/2020