Business leaders calling for the state’s public schools to connect to a university-based high-speed network hope to have cost estimates by mid-July and would like Gov. Mike Beebe to call a special session by the end of the year.
FASTERArkansas was formed last year by Beebe after education policymakers realized that most Arkansas schools did not have adequate broadband capabilities to participate in online Common Core testing or to take advantage of the internet for instructional purposes.
In a conference call Thursday, FASTERArkansas chair Jerry Jones of Acxiom, Kathy Smith of Walton Enterprises, Kendall Gibbons of Arvest, and Dumas Public Schools Superintendent David Rainey argued that schools should have the option of connecting to ARE-ON, the Arkansas Research Education Optical Network. They stressed that it should only be an option.
ARE-ON is a high-speed fiber optics network connecting the state’s public colleges and universities, health care providers and others. Public schools are not allowed to connect under Act 1050 of 2011, which was passed thanks to the efforts to the telecommunications industry. In May, a companion group, the Quality Digital Learning Study Committee, released a report calling for ARE-ON to be extended to schools.
According to Gibbons, Act 1050 has made it difficult to determine exact costs of the system because it prevents the state from bidding out the contracts. However, the group will make some “very high-quality assumptions” and provide a cost estimate by “mid-July, perhaps.”
Jones said “there were discussions about” placing the issue in next week’s special session dealing with school and state employee health insurance. However, as Beebe has said, the issue isn’t “ripe” yet.
“We would hope as we move forward through the year that we are able to build up overwhelming support for this initiative, and we (are) hopeful that the governor would call a special session later on during the year to address this needed change in the law,” Jones said.
ARE-ON is mostly composed of lines built by private telecommunications providers that are then leased to the network.
However, Jordan Johnson, spokesman for Arkansas Broadband Coalition for Kids, which represents the telecommunications industry, said there is no need to extend that network because the industry has already laid lines that would serve most schools. He said the data on which ARE-ON advocates are basing their assertions is flawed and that not enough of the industry’s questions have been answered.
“You have an existing system. Why would you want to reinvent the wheel?” he said.