By Sharon Schmickle | Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2010 | www.MinnPost.com
Minnesota's schools are nowhere near the point of the old ditty, "No more pencils, no more books . . . ," but they increasingly turn to the Internet for everything from science testing to foreign language classes.
That's why Minnesota needs to heed a new study suggesting that disparities in Internet access are leaving some students far behind their peers in learning opportunities. There are wide gaps in the broadband speeds that are available from district to district, according to the study (PDF) by the Center for Rural Policy and Development in St. Peter.
Beyond questions of fairness, the findings raise cause for concern about the state's economic prospects. Too many Minnesota students lack full access to technological tools that are essential components of the training for jobs of the future.
In 243 school districts surveyed, broadband connections were available to access the Internet at speeds up to 28 megabits/second on average. But the median speed was 10 mbps.
Why the wide disparity in these two measures of the middle? Simple. A few districts enjoyed ultra-high-speed connections of 100 mbps and higher, skewing the average higher. Many others, though, were trying to get by with no more than 1.5 mbps.
The findings represent a rough, preliminary measure for research that will probe deeper in the months to come, said Marnie Werner, the Center's research manager.
So don't get hung up on specific numbers.
School district Internet speeds 2010
What's important is not at all in dispute or question: At a time when budgets already are stretched tight, the state faces an urgent need to bring all of its schools into the Internet age.
Even in the many districts where the survey found current broadband speeds to be adequate for now, school officials predicted a steep climb in future needs.
"Nobody feels like they have enough," Werner said. "No matter how much we purchase, people are going to figure out how to fill that up given the way the technology is going."
Education imperative = economic issue
This is an economic issue as well as an education imperative.
For many Minnesotans, a school is the first point of formal and structured access to the technology that increasingly dominates the workplace and defines economic competitiveness, said a comprehensive report issued in November by the Minnesota Ultra-High Speed Broadband Task Force.
"Equipping and supporting schools and libraries is fundamental to the establishment of Minnesota as a global leader," noted the report compiled by a blue ribbon panel of education leaders, business representatives and public officials.
A fire hose to the Internet
If you've checked your download speeds at home, 10 mbps — the median speed reported for school districts in the survey — may sound pretty good.
Take a mental snapshot, though, of just one school building: Mr. Peterson's fourth-graders are learning to pronounce hola and muchas gracias in an interactive online Spanish drill; Miss Weiss' math students are using sophisticated online videos to learn geometry; the science teacher is downloading a state test; the principal is saving time and travel money by attending a meeting via video conference; and 10 parents are using an online portal to check up on their kids.
Now multiply that demand by the numbers of schools in the district.
You get the idea.
If a home needs the broadband equivalent of a garden hose, a school district needs a big, fat fire hose, said Mary Mehsikomer. She is the coordinator for Moorhead-based NW-LINKS, a network serving 70 public school districts and four regional library systems in northwestern Minnesota.
"You are going to have lots of different types of water coming through that hose," she said. "And when your usage starts to peak, your Internet slows way down."
It stands to reason that larger districts with more students need bigger hoses. That certainly explains a good share of the difference in broadband speed that is available district by district across the state.
Further, thanks to collaborations like NW-LINKs, even small schools around the state are better connected than they could have been by trying to go it alone. In the survey, school districts said they were gaining connectivity and saving considerable sums of money by joining telecommunications access clusters and similar groups to negotiate bandwidth prices. They also were pooling administrative expenses, tech support and related needs.
Many rural schools still struggle
But too many schools still are struggling with access that would be considered inadequate by most modern measures, especially small schools in rural regions.
Eighteen of the districts surveyed by the Center for Rural Policy & Development reported speeds of 1.5 mbps. Even some in the NW-LINKS network are trying to get by on download speeds of 3 mbps or less, Mehsikomer said.
How does that limit a school in a practical sense? She offered one example: "During statewide testing week, they basically don't allow any other Internet use in the school while they are downloading the tests and running them."
In other words, students can forget about their online Spanish and geometry lessons. Parents may not know for a week whether their kids are bringing home all of their homework. And teachers can't research tomorrow's lesson online.
Downloadable tests are just the beginning in the state's move toward education via Internet. Eventually schools will need to support a full array of interactive tests and other high-quality tools for pushing learning and assessing progress. The day is not far off when a science test, for example, can take place in a virtual laboratory where students can demonstrate hands-on proficiency at extracting DNA and testing its properties.
That future "requires width on both the wide-area network coming into a school district and on the local-area network to the classrooms," Mehsikomer said.
Help from Washington, to a point
The main strategy for closing disparities among schools has been a nationwide program known as "E-rate," which is administered by the Universal Service Administrative Co. under the direction of the Federal Communications Commission.
The program assists schools and libraries in obtaining affordable telecommunications service and Internet access. The funding is pegged to poverty levels. Another consideration is whether a school is in an urban or rural area.
That program, combined with a smaller state subsidy, has covered on average 43 percent of school districts' broadband bills in Minnesota, the survey found.
It should be no surprise that small, relatively remote districts needed more funding per student to get the same quality Internet access. In the Twin Cities, Rochester, Duluth and some regional centers, there is enough demand to make it profitable for phone and cable companies to make high-speed service virtually ubiquitous.
Not so in more remote areas with smaller schools, the survey found.
"The smaller a district was and the more remote it was, the higher the cost," Werner said.
"The federal E-rate program did help a lot, but it still ended up being more expensive per student in a lot of the smaller districts," she said. "It's such a tricky problem because there is only so much the schools can afford."
Schools also complain that the E-rate program limits some creative options for partnering with other public entities. A school coordinator in central Minnesota said in the survey that federal rules blocked schools from entering cooperative broadband deals with city and county governments because the federal funding is restricted for use in schools and libraries.
Looking to the state
What's true for schools is true for many remote cities and counties. They recognize the availability of broadband as essential for their future prosperity — and, in some cases, even for their survival. They've scrambled this past year for federal stimulus funds to upgrade and expand broadband access.
But the federal funds are limited. And many communities will lose their bids to improve overall local broadband access. By extension, their schools will lose, too.
So the ultimate responsibility for ensuring that every Minnesota child gets fair access to future educational opportunities falls in one way or another to the state itself.
Minnesota faced up to such a challenge in one of its proudest modern-day moments. During the 1970s, educational disparities were a major factor in the decision to shift school funding from the local property taxes to statewide support.
Even at the time, it may have been an overstatement to call that shift the Minnesota Miracle. But the term does reflect a measure of fairness and can-do spirit that many of us still like to think defines Minnesota.
Now, we can expect to hear many politicians in this election season call for a new miracle — defined, of course, through various partisan filters.
Test them on this one specific: Ask them what they would do to ensure that every kid in the state had adequate broadband support in the classroom.
Sharon Schmickle covers science, international affairs, Greater Minnesota and other subjects.