Category Archives: State government

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.

Continue reading Governor Hutchinson already has a million advantages

When 3 percent is a big win

Mark West is running for governor as a Libertarian.

By Steve Brawner

How can a candidate win by losing? By capturing enough of the vote to ensure his third party qualifies for the next election and has a better chance to be heard.

In Arkansas, parties must win 3 percent in gubernatorial and presidential elections to automatically qualify for the next election’s ballot, which is why the Democrats will surely find someone to run against seemingly unbeatable Gov. Asa Hutchinson in 2018.

Arkansas’ most organized third party, the Libertarians, failed to reach that standard in 2016, when former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson won 2.65 percent of the presidential vote despite a promising start. That meant the state party had to collect at least 10,000 signatures this year at a cost of about $30,000.

Continue reading When 3 percent is a big win

Drones, health care and the Constitution

By Steve Brawner

© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

What do the emerging aerial drone industry and the health care system have in common? They both would benefit from a section of the Constitution that’s largely been ignored in recent years.

That would be the 10th Amendment, which says, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”

The political science term for this is “federalism.”

I’m bringing this up after reading that Arkansas’ Sen. Tom Cotton and three other senators – two of them Democrats – have introduced a bill that would let states and communities govern aerial drones flying under 200 feet of airspace.

In a co-written column in the Washington Times, Cotton and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said the nation’s drone industry has been stuck in a hover as it awaits regulations from the slow-moving Federal Aviation Administration. Meanwhile, Chinese manufacturers are beginning to dominate the developing market. Cotton and Lee argued that since it will take forever for the federal government to act, states and communities should be given control. A drone flying less than 200 feet over someone’s farm is a local issue, not a national one.

They’re right. Drones will be a growing part of our lives in the coming years. States and communities will have different uses and different levels of comfort with a technology that is both beneficial and invasive, so local solutions are preferable to a one-size-fits-all approach dictated by Washington.

Cotton also had a hand in a bigger piece of legislation, the Senate health care reform bill. He was one of 13 senators who crafted it behind closed doors but still hasn’t said if he supports the final product.

That’s because the bill is a mess and will never pass. After seven years of demanding Obamacare be repealed, Republicans are being forced to admit they never had a plan to replace it or fix its problems – and no, we can’t go back to the “old system,” either.

Health care is hard. Public policies result in allocating resources, but with health care, what do we want to limit, and for whom? Do we want more government involvement, which means more government control, or do we want health care decisions to be driven by the profit motive? Should health care be refused to people who refuse to work, or should they be treated in emergency rooms, or just given health care for free? As President Trump said earlier this year, “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.”

Thankfully, the United States has a valuable feature: its united states. The Senate health care bill does give states some flexibility – just as the Affordable Care Act that created Obamacare did – but maybe this is one issue requiring truly massive experimentation in 50 separate laboratories. Recently, California legislators seriously considered a statewide single payer system where the state government would pay everyone’s health care bills. They couldn’t make the numbers add up, but it’s good that we live in a country where widely varying alternatives can be considered – alternatives such as Arkansas Works, where the government buys insurance for poor people. Through experimentation, maybe an affordable health care system will arise that reflects American values but doesn’t cost 18 percent of the gross domestic product. We must try something, because what we’ve been doing the past few decades isn’t sustainable.

It’s not just drones and health care where a re-emphasis on federalism would be good for the country. As the United States has become more polarized, congressional gridlock is no longer a temporary problem but a permanent reality, meaning long-term problems can’t be solved or often seriously debated. The situation is leaving too much power in the hands of the one official who can act unilaterally, the president, and in the federal bureaucracy. In America, we’re supposed to address issues through deliberative legislative consensus. And that process still happens in state governments.

America’s diversity is one of its strengths. Let states like Arkansas and California try to address more problems on their own, learn from each other, offer lessons for the federal government, and in the end, still be a little different.

It’s OK. We don’t all have to be exactly the same. It’s in the Constitution, after all – about a third of the way through the amendments.