All posts by Steve Brawner

Done: Arkansas students have fast internet

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson
Gov. Asa Hutchinson shakes hands with Yessica Jones, Department of Information Systems director, at Glen Rose.

By Steve Brawner

It’s not often a public policy problem can be completely checked off the to-do list. Last month, one was.

That’s when 100 percent of Arkansas’ school districts reached broadband internet connections of 200 kilobits per second per student. That’s twice the national standard, at no more cost than the previous slower speeds. According to the group Education Superhighway, only five states had reached the 100 kbps standard as of 2016, though others may do so along with Arkansas this year.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson marked the occasion July 21 in Glen Rose, a small school district between Benton and Malvern. It had been one of the state’s last districts to obtain its high-speed fiber connection the previous week.

A remarkable turnaround

The milestone is a remarkable turnaround for a state that until recently was making headlines for being behind the times. The Foundation for Excellence in Education slapped Arkansas with a “D” in its 2013 “Digital Learning Now” report. A 2014 study found the state had spent almost $160 million with vendors on the Arkansas Public School Computer Network since 1992. But instead of investing in high-speed options like fiber, it was spending 70 percent of the budget on antiquated copper wiring, delivering information at a measly 5 kbps. By supplementing APSCN with private providers, 58 percent of Arkansas districts were meeting the 100 kbps standard. However, 17 percent offered speeds of only 10-49 kbps, while 5 percent were even slower.

The problem snuck up on policymakers but was exposed when the state started adopting the Common Core curriculum. Then there was a big, very political argument about schools hooking up to the universities’ and hospitals’ network.

Under Hutchinson, state a leader in coding movement

That’s all in the rear-view mirror now, and much of the credit belongs to Hutchinson. The 66-year-old has been a forward-thinking leader regarding public school technology. Most notably, he kept a campaign promise that Arkansas would become the first state to require high schools to teach computer coding. As a result, the number of students taking those classes has increased from 691 to 5,500. A story by the influential Wired magazine was headlined, “So, Arkansas is leading the learn to code movement.”

But computer coding skills don’t mean much without modern internet connections. After becoming governor in 2015, Hutchinson ordered the creation of a statewide broadband network and placed it under the supervision of the Department of Information Systems. Previously, DIS shared responsibility with the Department of Education. Those changes improved the state’s negotiating position with the Federal Communications Commission for its E-rate program, which is paying about 79 percent of the costs. Meanwhile, the state negotiated rates with private vendors, some of which waived their fees.

As a result of all of this, the state will provide the 200 kbps for about $13-$14 million annually, or about the same amount it was spending before. It’s up to the individual districts to build out their networks from their hubs to their outlying schools. That’s not expected to be a problem, and they can choose to spend more for higher speeds. Now, internet access will not be a barrier whether students are in Glen Rose, Fort Smith, Jonesboro or Pine Bluff.

What now?

But what do educators and students do with that access? Everyone with a broadband connection or a smartphone knows high-speed internet is both an awesome tool and an awful distraction. It can make us more connected, but also less so, and more powerful but also more passive. An inspired teacher with a history book and a chalkboard can impart more knowledge than a poor one with a blazing fast internet connection.

Still, while tools don’t assure success, they help more than they hurt. So now Arkansas students, so often in the past disadvantaged compared to their peers, have this one on their side: Their internet access is as good as anyone’s in the country and better than many, regardless of where in the state they call home.

That’s not bad for a state that was falling behind the times not long ago, and was stuck in a very political argument about what to do about it.

© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Governor Hutchinson already has a million advantages

Gov. Asa Hutchinson
Gov. Asa Hutchinson has raised more than a million dollars and still has almost $900,000 on hand.

By Steve Brawner

Advantages don’t guarantee success, but they certainly help, and so far Gov. Asa Hutchinson has more than a million of them.

Hutchinson had raised $1.3 million as of July 18 for his re-election campaign, which will be against whomever the Democrats can convince to run against him and the Libertarian candidate. He still had almost $1.2 million on hand at the time.

And the Democrats will find someone. For a political party in Arkansas to remain on the ballot without having to gather signatures, it must win 3 percent in the presidential or governor’s race, depending on which year it is. Democrats can’t do that without a candidate. The longer it takes to find one, the bigger the fundraising gap will be, unless the candidate is independently wealthy and willing to spend his or her own money. It happens, but not very often.

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Immigrants needed to pay for Social Security, Medicare

Immigrant, immigration, immigrants
New Americans take the Oath of Allegiance in Little Rock.

By Steve Brawner

Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton’s proposed RAISE Act he’s co-sponsoring would limit legal immigrants. But without many more young people coming to America, how are we going to pay for Social Security and Medicare?

Cotton’s argument – and President Trump’s – is that the current laws let in the wrong people and depress wages. His RAISE (Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy) Act would award points based on education, English proficiency, high-paying job offers, age, achievement and entrepreneurial initiative. The current system instead gives preference to extended family members. The RAISE Act also would limit  the number of refugees offered permanent residency to 50,000.

An immigrant nation

Focusing on the world’s best and brightest kind of flies in the face of Emma Lazarus’ poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty. (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. … I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”) That poem’s “wretched refuse” traveled across the ocean with nothing and then built America. As the Washington Post’s Philip Bump pointed out, Trump’s immigrant grandfather, Friedrich Trumpf, likely would not have qualified for entry under the RAISE Act.

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Impeachment: Be careful what you wish for

President Trump, impeachmentBy Steve Brawner

Forty percent of Arkansas respondents recently told a Talk Business & Politics/Hendrix College poll that President Trump should be impeached. For them, here are two responses: “For what?” and “Be careful what you wish for.”

The Constitution defines the conditions for impeachment, and it’s not for excessive tweeting or even fitness to serve. It’s for “treason, bribery, and high crimes and misdemeanors.” Those are high bars.

Some Trump opponents point to the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which bans officials from accepting a “present” from a foreign state without Congress’ consent. They argue that the Trump family’s business dealings are a violation. But is payment for services rendered a “present”? The clause has never been litigated in a major court case. Regardless, Congress clearly is consenting.

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