On Tuesday morning, the legislature’s joint Education Committee heard from consultants Picus Odden and Associates about broadband in Arkansas public schools. The consultants didn’t present new data to the committee but endorsed the state’s Digital Learning Study, which earlier this year concluded that the most cost-effective means of extending fast internet access to all districts is to allow K-12 schools to connect to ARE-ON, the public-private fiber optic network used by colleges and universities.  Private internet service providers such as AT&T, Windstream and Cox are staunchly opposed to that plan, as they want to continue to sell internet service to school districts.

The most significant news: the Bureau of Legislative Research is now seeking bids to perform a new study that should clear up much of the disputed information about internet access in schools and the cost of its provision. The study will send “boots on the ground…to each district and each school,” said Dr. Scott Price from Picus Odden.

In the past, the private providers have questioned the validity of districts’ self-reported data on their internet speeds and costs. Available data seem to indicate that Arkansas schools pay far more than the national average. The average Arkansas school pays $162 per Mb per month, according to Price; the national average is $22 per Mb per month. Providers say that’s not accurate.

The new study should compile the current cost per Mb for every district and school in the state, as well as a side-by-side comparison of the cost of using ARE-ON to provide expanded internet service and the cost of purchasing service from any local private providers.

The RFP is being rushed forward on a “very aggressive” timeline, said Richard Wilson from the Bureau of Legislative Research. It was issued on Sept. 5, seeks to award a contract by Sept. 18 and requests completion of the entire project by Dec. 1.

The providers have insisted that the bandwidth shortage in Arkansas is greatly overblown and that private industry can adequately meet the internet needs of school districts. Gov. Beebe and a coalition of education advocates — including the Walton Family Foundation and the state Education Department — say allowing schools to tap into ARE-ON would be the cheapest way to provide high-speed internet. In 2011, the legislature passed a little-noticed law backed by the private providers that expressly prohibited K-12 education from using the ARE-ON network. Education advocates, under the banner of a group called FASTER Arkansas, want to change that law. 

The consultants also gave the committee a lengthy “desk audit” that reviews Arkansas’ process for studying its compliance with adequacy measures. Picus Odden is the firm that’s shaped much of Arkansas’ education policy over the past decade. Ten years ago, as the state wrestled with the Arkansas Supreme Court’s Lake View decision, Picus Odden provided the model for what became the school funding “matrix”, the basis of compliance with the high court’s mandate to provide an “adequate and equitable education” for all students. 

Funding for special education reporting provided by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.