Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s office on Friday heralded a new report from a nonprofit partner of the state that shows Missouri schools have made significant progress in the last few years in connecting to high-speed internet — but the nonprofit wants to be sure schools don’t lose the funding they’ve been granted through lack of use.
The 2018 “State of the States” report from San Francisco, California-based Education Superhighway “shows that since 2015, an additional 222,389 Missouri students have classroom connectivity at the Federal Communications Commission’s goal of a minimum 100 kilobits per second per student,” according to a news release from Parson’s office.
Education Superhighway reported 98 percent of Missouri school districts can access the internet at speeds of 100 kbps per student, compared to 77 percent of districts in 2015, 88 percent in 2016 and 94 percent last year.
The report notes 37,811 students are still in need of access to increased bandwidth, though. Seven school districts in the state remain in need of bandwidth upgrades — none of which are in Mid-Missouri, according to Education Superhighway.
The report also notes 20 schools in nine Missouri districts need a fiber connection — “the only technology that can scale to meet the ever growing bandwidth needs of digital learning.” No Mid-Missouri schools are included in that list, either.
The only place in the report where Mid-Missouri school districts do appear is among 158 districts identified as at risk of losing access to federal Category 2 E-rate funding if none of what’s budgeted is used by the end of the current fiscal year to support Wi-Fi upgrades:
• More than 50 percent of Jefferson City Public Schools’ $775,000 Category 2 E-rate budget is at risk of expiring.
• All of Cole County R-5’s $92,000 E-rate budget (Eugene).
• All of Moniteau County R-1’s $219,000 budget (California).
• All of Miller County R-3’s $35,000 (Tuscumbia).
• All of Morgan County R-2’s $203,000 (Versailles).
• All of Gasconade County R-2’s $289,000 (Owensville).
The E-rate program subsidizes costs for schools and libraries to access external sources of internet connection — Category 1 — and internal connections within buildings — Category 2.
Education Superhighway’s report notes schools in Missouri have used $50 million in E-rate funding since 2015 to upgrade Wi-Fi and internal networks. Of $43 million in remaining, unused E-rate funds, $20 million for internal connections is at risk.
Jenny Lam, a state engagement manager for Education Superhighway, said there can be many reasons districts still have funds available, but the organization wants to be sure schools know that even if they use $1, perhaps even on “planning,” districts can keep the rest of their available funds.
Lam said a significant number of the identified districts losing a significant amount of E-rate funding would not necessarily jeopardize progress that’s been made, but “it would just make it harder” for districts to upgrade technology — requiring more of districts’ own money.
Then-Gov. Eric Greitens partnered the state with Education Superhighway last year to expand high-speed fiberoptic connections to Missouri schools at no cost to the schools by leveraging general revenue money to access more E-rate funding.
Greitens’ plan was to unlock $39 million in matching E-rate funds with $6 million in state funds. Education Superhighway, meanwhile, identified districts in need of internet connectivity infrastructure investments.
Tyler Madsen, assistant director of communications for Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the efforts highlighted by Parson’s office Friday are a continuation of that work.
DESE, the Office of the Governor and Education Superhighway are in a trifecta partnership called the Missouri Connect & Learn Initiative, with the same goals measured in Education Superhighway’s latest report — to leverage state matching funds to expand fiber infrastructure; give schools sufficient bandwidth of at least 100 kbps per student, or ideally 1 megabit per second per student; establish robust Wi-Fi connectivity in all classrooms; and use E-rate funding to provide affordable bandwidth to every district.
Since 2015, the cost of broadband in Missouri has decreased from $18 per megabit per second down to $4.48 per mbps — an approximately 75 percent decrease, compared to an approximately 72 percent cost decrease nationally in the same years, Education Superhighway’s report notes.
Education Superhighway works with schools — especially rural districts that often don’t have full-time grant-writers and organizers — to secure federal E-rate grant funding, Madsen said.
Greitens said in April 2017 that more than 100 school districts in the state did not have access to quality internet — a count this year down to single digits in terms of either bandwidth upgrades or fiber connectivity.
“We’re seeing a really great progression of school districts planning for the future,” Lam said, adding the rapid connectivity growth in the state shows there’s a plan and interest in adapting more technology.
She cited from the report that in the past three years, median bandwidth speeds in the state have increased 2.3 times — from 238 kbps to 559 kbps.
“We have made progress, but our work is not done,” Parson said Friday. He added: “Having today’s technology available to our students is crucial in preparing our future workforce. We must ensure our classrooms are equipped with the high-speed internet to thrive in today’s economy” and support “rapid innovation in K-12 education.”
School districts can find more information at dese.mo.gov/connect-learn or educationsuperhighway.org/districts/.