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Missouri falls behind in rural school districts broadband improvement
By Jiayi Shi, Langston Newsome, Madeline McKernan and Quinn Ritzdorf
It’s Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) testing month and computer labs in the Osage R-III School District are all empty. The school prioritizes MAP testing instead of all other Internet-based classes because the bandwidth at the school district is not big enough to scale multiple users at one time.
Chuck Woody, superintendent of Osage R-III School District, said having a small bandwidth makes it difficult for teachers in class.
“Another teacher wanted to put up a YouTube video for science class or something along those lines,” Woody said. “We just don't have the capabilities to do all of that at one time.”
This makes it difficult when students need to access the internet for standardized tests. Limited bandwidth inhibits students learning environment. A study published by Carnegie Mellon University found that as Internet use increased prior to 2010, test scores also increased by 14 percent.
It takes one megabyte to browse a webpage. According to Woody, the Osage R III School District only has the capability to handle 30 megabytes at a time. That means across the entire 800-student district, no more than 30 students can be using a computer at one time. (then add a sentence to show what it would take for a teacher to show a video). Schools have to constantly make priorities and monitor bandwidth to avoid network congestion.
Woody wants every student to have an iPad or Chromebook in class. But the first thing is to have enough broadband.
“It does us no good to go buy iPads or Chromebooks or whatever we want in our kids' hands without the bandwidth,” Woody said. “It would be a waste of money. So, we have a point and this is a big step. Number one, to get the bandwidth here, so we can go to the next step and get the devices.”
In April 2017, Gov. Eric Greitens launched the Missouri Connect & Learn Initiative, aiming to ensure that broadband is available in every school district. He launched a $45 million program with $6 million coming from state funding and $39 million coming from federal funding.
Thirteen schools have already applied for the funding and Osage R-3 School District is one of them. Woody said he found out about the program at a meeting with EducationSuperHighway, a national non-profit organization working with Missouri Connect & Learn Initiative to gather schools, the governor’s office, Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and service providers together to make sure students have access to digital learning.
As a partner of Missouri Connect & Learn Initiative, it’s their role to help the state and school districts fully leverage funding to optimize their internet access, according to Jenny Lam, Missouri Engagement Manager at EducationSuperHighway.
Here’s how the process works:
Missouri Connect & Learn Initiative works with the federal E-rate program to provide funding for broadband upgrades in Missouri school districts.
School districts can receive federal reimbursements ranging from 25 percent to 90 percent based on the income level of students, which is derived from the number of students who applied for free and reduced lunch programs. The more students who applied for the free and reduced lunch program, the more money school districts can get from the federal E-rate program.
Since Missouri also has the state match funding, if the school district can get 80 percent of the funding covered by the E-rate program, the state will invest the minimum of 10 percent and E-rate will match with an additional 10 percent.
“So that actually puts the school district at zero cost out of pocket for the construction of that scalable infrastructure,” Lam said. “It has been a huge incentive and the state of Missouri has said that if it's beyond the 10 percent match, from the E-Rate program, through the $6 million dollars that were allocated through the state matching fund, the state would then cover whatever remaining cost for the district.”
Jeff Falter, the state education department’s chief data officer, said the state has approved all 13 schools that applied for the funding.
“Right now, those 13 are waiting at the FCC to get federal approval to move forward with that project,” Falter said. “So once that approval happens, they can come back and start the project and we will do the reimbursement with the feds.”
But there is not an exact date of when schools would get FCC approval. Woody said he hopes next fall all the constructions can be done for the bandwidth upgrade to 1000 MBps.
Woody also said they will actually pay less even though they have a much larger bandwidth. But there are still some school districts that pay expensive internet fees every month.
According to a map from St. Louis Public Radio, with the same provider, AT&T, Osage R-I School District has to pay $226.27 per month per MBps, while Columbia 93 School District only pays $0.75 per month per MBps.
Thomas Johnson, a former professor at MU School of Public Affairs, said it has something to do with the population density.
"It's an issue of aggregation, getting enough users in areas to get the price down," said Johnson. "The study we did a few years ago showed that in rural areas they got slower service at a much higher cost just because there were so few people that are coming together to pay for it. The infrastructure, the cost of getting the service in rural areas is very high and especially there are very few people there."
Lam said they are looking at and working with Missouri of what they called "the future ready.”
School districts like Osage R-III are ready for students to have digital-rich classrooms, but having a good and stable broadband is what they need right now, and they still have a long way to go.