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Getting real about broadband for school kids

By   /   March 16, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Gov. Greg Abbott’s words were expansive and full of promise: technology to ensure a quality education for every child in Texas.

Abbott late last week announced his intention, in partnership with the non-profit national group EducationSuperHighway, to extend the state’s broadband network to reach 2 million more schoolchildren by 2018.

The governor’s goal is consistent with the charge of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to the Senate Committee on Education to bring to the 2017 legislative session recommendations for affordable broadband available to all school districts in Texas.

However lofty the intention, the path to execution is currently light on detail. Staff for Abbott and EducationSuperHighway told Watchdog this week there was no plan, no cost estimates and no idea who might pay for it.

A feasibility study, just under way, will fill in the blanks, Watchdog was assured.

Elected officials, educators and service providers, all with a stake in the success of such a plan, might do well to learn from the federal government’s $7.2 billion plan to connect millions of rural Americans with broadband.

By nearly every measure, that rural broadband initiative failed, Janice Hauge, co-author of a recent study of the program, told Watchdog.

Janice Hauge knows what does and doesn't work when government thinks big about broadband.

Janice Hauge knows what does and doesn’t work when government thinks big about broadband.

If there is anything resembling outrage in a study by two economics professors leaning on terms like logit regression, endogeneity and restricted cubic splines, it’s that the bureaucrats entrusted to carry out the plan took no meaningful measures of its success or failure.

“They spent $5 billion on broadband, but nothing happened,” said Hauge, a professor of economics at the University of North Texas in Denton. “This was a stimulus plan. Everyone who applied for a grant had to agree to document outcomes. None of them did.”

This was a common refrain from researchers looking for results from the nearly $800 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. A lightning infusion of money to creat jobs and rescue a dangerously eddying economy was instead a slow-spitting pinball machine of programs for favored constituencies bouncing into and off of a variety of federal, state and local bureaucracies.

In 2009 Congress gave $4.7 billion of its $7.2 billion broadband total to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration for something called the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program.

A tiny and largely unknown federal Rural Utilities Service, with a spotty record for handling taxpayer money, was entrusted with $3 billion of the total. At the time, administrator Jonathan Adelstein boasted his agency’s portion would connect 7 million people, 360,000 businesses and more than 30,000 of the most critical public services like hospitals and schools.

By the fall of 2010, $4 billion of the $7.2 billion total had gone out to 289 broadband programs nationwide, but the rest had not been disbursed at all, according to the study by Hauge and James Prieger of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy.

Of that, almost $270 million came to Texas in the form of grants and loans, according to state Department of Agriculture records at the time.

In spite of its bureaucratic pace, the federal broadband program suffered, from the start, a top-down pressure to spend taxpayer money as fast as possible, Hauge said.

All stimulus programs included deadlines for spending and the threat of losing funding if the deadlines weren’t met, although the deadlines were frequently extended.

Hauge and Prieger’s research confirmed the work of others who found little attention was paid to sending funds to where they were most needed, instead making their way to the districts represented by the most powerful members of Congress.

The Rural Utilities Service was a model of this capriciousness. The service often funded projects in areas where is was easy and cheap rather than needed, Politico reported last July.

Six years after it first received its funding, half of the programs the service oversaw had not spent the money they were allocated. Nearly four dozen funded programs never got started at all.

At the time of the reporting, $277 million in broadband program money hadn’t been spent.

Rural Utilities Service officials admitted to Politico their efforts reached not  7 million people, but maybe hundreds of thousands.

“We are left with a program that spent $3 billion and we really don’t know what became of it,” Mark Goldstein, a Government Accountability Office investigator, told Politico.

Hauge does not contend that Abbott’s goals are not worthwhile. EducationSuperHighway research has shown about 2 million children in 1,000 Texas schools have no access to high-speed Internet.

Gov. Greg Abbott wants every schoolkid in Texas to have broadband access by 2018.

Gov. Greg Abbott wants every school kid in Texas to have broadband access by 2018.

Just 26 percent of Texas school campuses met Texas Education Agency computer connectivity targets, according to a survey presented to the Legislature in December.

“The problem is the government is focused on the supply side,” Hauge said. “If your goal is to reach students with fiber and computers, sure, you can do that in a month. It’s the demand side that’s ignored.”

Part of the demand side politicians should pay attention to are the people and institutions with access to broadband who choose not to use it, Hauge said. Government programs have done little to address computer illiteracy and apathy, she said.

“It’s like the government telling you this is what you should want rather than finding out what it is that they need,” Hauge said. “It’s very important to have community buy-in.”

Hauge said she hopes the governor’s broadband plan will be honest enough to include a cost/benefit analysis. She warned those designing the plan not to assume the same returns everywhere money is spent.

Most important for a plan, regardless of its scope and budget, is to agree to and demand those implementing it be held to outcomes the public recognizes.

Whether it be a measure of improved grades or a connection to increased employment for graduates, Hauge said, a successful broadband program should be prepared to prove it was worth the money.

“You can’t just say, ‘Here’s your computer, have at it,’” Hauge said. “Implementation cannot be the goal. The goal is reaching kids.”

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Mark Lisheron is the Austin-based reporter for Watchdog.org. He first served as a national Watchdog reporter before joining Texas Watchdog. He spent almost 30 years in newspapers, 14 of those years for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and a decade with the Austin American-Statesman. Mark can be reached on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog or by email at [email protected]