Time is running out for lawmakers to boost internet speeds in rural Alaska schools

An empty classroom at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé in Juneau on July 20, 2022. (Photo: Lisa Phu/Alaska Beacon)

Dozens of rural Alaska schools will lose access to faster internet next year after Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed an education bill.

In addition to losing the historic increase in the per-pupil formula that funds schools and pupil transportation funding, rural Alaska schools may not be able to apply to pay for internet speeds of up to 100 megabits per second by federal grant deadlines. year – a fourfold increase from previous years.

Supporters say the fee increase is critical for rural schools, where internet costs are high and a lack of it is a barrier to an equitable education for students.

If the House can advance internet speed legislation by Wednesday, schools should be able to meet the deadline, said Lisa Parady, executive director of the Alaska School Board, an umbrella group for school leaders associations. She has been a long-time advocate for improving internet speeds in rural schools.

“Connectivity is synonymous with opportunity,” she said. “Therefore, depriving our rural communities of adequate bandwidth will not only perpetuate educational disparities but also hinder their ability to innovate, collaborate and compete on a global scale.”

Now, rural areas are pinning their hopes on another standalone internet measure, House Bill 193, introduced last year by Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, that could Change state law before schools apply for speed increase. The bill awaits a vote by the full House of Representatives.

The bill must become law by March 27 for schools to benefit next year.

Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, chairman of the House Rules Committee, is one of the people deciding which bills will come up for a vote. He did not commit Tuesday to when or if he would introduce the bill.

“We know there’s a deadline; we know it’s important. We’re working on it. In what form, how: these are discussions that will take place over the next three or four days,” he said.

He pointed to another bill, House Bill 392 introduced by Rep. Tom McKay, R-Anchorage, that would include increasing internet speeds in rural schools. The bill is similar to Senate Bill 140, which Dunleavy vetoed, but adds the governor’s proposal for a teacher retention bonus. It’s unclear whether the bill will succeed, given that the House rejected the bonus provision in February.

The Alaska School Broadband Assistance Grant program was created in 2014 to help schools pay for increased broadband access. It uses federal funds to state funds under the E-Rate program at a ratio of about 8 to 1.

Last year, 151 schools in half the state benefited from the program.

In late February, the Alaska Department of Education recommended that school districts apply for both 25 Mbps and 100 Mbps so that they would be eligible for the increase regardless of changes in state law.

Industry advocate Kristina O’Connor, director of the Alaska Telecommunications Association, said most schools are currently reviewing internet service proposals. The deadline to make a selection is a week away.

“They can choose whatever level they want, but the question for schools is ‘Will there be funding?’ That’s up in the air,” O’Connor said.

She said 25 mbps was available for small schools and was certainly better than no internet. Her internet package is 40mbps, which she said is a bit low, just for reference.

“Going from 25 mbps to 100 mbps is faster, but it also has more capacity,” she said. “More people can use the Internet at the same time.”

Educators in rural and remote areas say this is the crux of the problem.

fairness and responsibility

Kuspuk School District Superintendent Madeline Aguillard said that at 25 mbps, only about 10 students in a school building can take online exams at the same time, which raised a question for her: How can schools treat students if their access is restricted? Responsible for learning? unfair.

“Even so, sometimes tests throw students out. Imagine taking a standardized test and the screen goes blank, and then someone from the district office tells you you have to start over…four times. How do you think you’re going to perform?” she said . “How accurate is our data really? What impact does that have on student confidence when these results come back months later? All because of something that is absolutely controllable.”

Emily Eakin, technology director for the Northwest Arctic Area School District, told the House Finance Committee that her district’s two largest schools, with more than 300 students and staff, all share 25 mbps.

“25 megabits per school is insufficient to meet our district’s current and growing learning and general operational needs. Our bandwidth needs have risen dramatically in recent years with the increase in online education courses, testing and business operations,” she said.

She said the “frustratingly slow” pace prevented staff from completing simple tasks such as roll call and prevented students from accessing online materials.

Alaska ranks 51st nationally for internet coverage and availability in the state’s five-year Digital Equity Plan, which aims to increase access. The report calls the lack of access a “barrier to community and economic development.”

This story originally appeared on Alaska Lighthouse and is republished here with permission.

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