I have had the privilege and honor of living in Arkansas my whole life. I’ve seen a lot more of the world than I ever thought possible, but I’ve always counted myself lucky that I can come home to a place that is so open-hearted and generous. The Arkansas I live in now is definitely not the Arkansas I was born in, though. When I was growing up in Little Rock and Cabot in the 1970s and 80s the world was a huge place that existed somewhere out there. We caught glimpses of it on television (all four stations; I grew up in the country pre-cable), but by-and-large it felt like we were the backwater province that the rest of the country joked we were. My, but how things have changed.
I read Lydia Dobyns’ blog post, “With Liberty and Justice and High Speed Internet Access for All” and couldn’t help but be moved by her insight into one of the challenges that is facing my home state, providing high speed internet access and resources to all of our schools (and ultimately to all of our communities). Ms. Dobyns relates a tale of the disparity that exists here. That disparity is confounding to me; but the attention being brought to it is showing us the way to addressing it.
I am fortunate to be part of the most dynamic educational program in the world, the EAST Initiative. Like Wal-Mart and Johnny Cash, EAST is an Arkansas-born product that provides service to a wide and eclectic group of people. With its focus on technology driven service projects developed and led by students in grades 2-12 (and beyond), EAST programs are developing the next wave of entrepreneurial problem-solvers whose skills in both the concrete STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) skills and the vital workplace and higher ed skills (self-direction, commitment to purpose, positive communication and problem solving). I would say that EAST is developing the leaders of tomorrow, but the truth is that many of our students are the leaders of today. Tomorrow better watch out!
I said earlier that it is apparent how much things have changed in my time in this state. The world isn’t quite so big. We produced a President and discovered that there were Fortune 100 companies in our borders. We have (like everyone else) had the world opened up to us by that information superhighway that rolled over society before many of us knew what happened. The access to information and commerce, to education and health that broadband internet provides is staggering when you consider that it just wasn’t so long ago that the best we had at our Universities was interlibrary-loan and a floor of microfiche.
In the current debate about equity in access for our schools the thing that I haven’t heard is any disagreement that it’s necessary. Everyone seems to agree we need to do better and everyone seems to agree we can do better. I live in a central Arkansas suburb and am fortunate to be able to choose from several different providers for broadband access. I checked my home system yesterday and saw that I am currently running on roughly 50 Mbps download speed and a little over 20 in upload speed. That’s groovy but also alarming. I know schools that are running at 15 Mbps download-for the WHOLE school! I’m empty nesting so my wife and I can split the internet and still have nearly twice the access that every student in that school has combined. Everyone is right: it’s possible and it’s necessary.
What I’m currently trying to understand is why, if there is so much agreement, there’s not been any action. The Arkansas I know is one that comes together to solve problems. One that values children. One that has education written into its constitution as a priority. That’s a pretty good place.
My first exposure to politics was in 1978. My mother had taken up her civic right to petition the government for redress of grievances and run with it. In 1978, the survivors of deceased police officers and firemen received a $25 monthly pension. Even in ’78 that was penury and an insult to the families of these crucial public servants. We were one of those families. My father passed away in 1976 as a patrolman for the Little Rock Police Force and left behind a stunned family consisting of a 28-year-old widow and her two sons, 8 and 6. My mom saw an issue that needed to be addressed and stormed the Capitol, and she got the law changed. Why? Because it was the right thing to do. Because it was logical to do so. Because, once pointed out, it would be immoral to ignore it. Really, I’ve always thought it’s because Arkansas is a place where when we agree to do something we work together to make sure it gets done.
Gov. Beebe ran on a platform of reducing the grocery tax (among many other things) to make life more fair for our citizens. It happened. I was in the room for a press conference where he announced that it was time to solve the problem of inequitable access to broadband. Let’s make it happen.
I know a lot about how to motivate kids and develop service projects. I don’t know much of anything about how to connect all our schools to broadband in an equitable, affordable manner, but I know a lot of people who do. I think we should put them in a room and, since we’re past the initial agreement stage on what needs to be done, move straight to the getting it done stage.
Our students deserve it. Our communities deserve it. Everyone will benefit from the ancillary benefits of strengthening the infrastructure of the internet in the state. We can do this and I have no idea why we haven’t already. Let’s get to work. I know about 450,000 students who will thank everyone involved.
Until next time,
I’m Matt and that’s that!