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Deadline, Costs Loom For Public Schools To Get Wired

Florida Department of Management Services
Districts in white are the closest to being in broadband compliance while darker districts still have a way to go

In the next few years, Florida students will be taking more of their state exams online. Textbooks will be replaced by Macbooks, but the schools will largely remain the same, and many of those facilities aren’t equipped to handle the digital revolution that’s underway.

Florida has a goal: by the 2017-2018 school year, Florida districts will have a ratio of 100 megabits of download capacity per 1,000 students. According to Department of Management Services Director of Telecommunications Ed Peters, that’s what the state estimated it would need to support computer-based exams:

 “That was for online assessment associated with PARCC and some of the things you’re looking at here. So the compliance ratio is developed by learning what the school has today and comparing it to that benchmark of what they may need to have next year," Peters told the House Education Appropriations Committee Monday.

Even though Florida may not choose to administer the Common Core-aligned PARCC exams, whatever test replaces the state’s outgoing Florida Comprehensive Assessment Exam must be able to run online.

But districts vary greatly in terms of broadband capacity. For example, Jefferson County in North Florida has only one school. There are so few students the district is already in compliance with the state’s goal. However, that’s not the case in larger, more urban and developed communities. Peters says an area’s population largely determines its readiness, not its median income level.

“What drives a service provider is profit," he said. "So that profit comes from population-dense areas. So where you have a higher density of people residing, there’s a need for more bandwidth going in. That may not always correspond to affluence or poverty.”  

The state has been trying to improve schools’ internet capabilities for years. A 2012 Florida Department of Education study found about a third of the state’s public schools didn’t have wireless internet service, and 263 buildings didn’t have basic broadband. At the time, the state estimated it would cost more than $400 million to shore up digital infrastructure and purchase more laptops and tablets. In recent years, the state hasn’t come close to funding that request.  Last year, lawmakers gave about $80 million to shore up schools’ digital capacity, and the issue is up for debate again this year. 

“Between now and the time we’re done with our budget we’re going to try to map out how do we fund that," said House Education Appropriations Chairman, Representative Eric Fresen (R-Miami). "How do we make sure each one of these things laid out on this diagram are met and can we get toward the '17-18 goal of 1 meg/student goal.”

Fresen chairs the House Appropriations Committee, which will begin putting together its 2014-2015 funding proposal next week. Meanwhile, at its upcoming meeting, the state board of education will also take a look at its digital inventory. According to a separate analysis by the Florida Department of Education,about 70 percent of schools are meeting the state’s current wireless and broadband targets—still far off from the 1:1 ratio the state hopes to achieve.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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