The Delta Grassroots Caucus (DGC) is a broad coalition of grassroots leaders in the eight-state Delta region. DGC is also a founding partner of the Economic Equality Caucus,
which advocates for economic equality across the USA.

Arkansas Achieves Universal High-Speed Broadband in Public Schools; & School Bus Seat Belt Bill Becomes Law

Posted on July 26, 2017 at 10:39 AM

Arkansas is now one of only a few states having universal high-speed broadband connectivity for its public schools thanks to the leadership of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, the state government, and private sector officials. The Delta Caucus praises this action because it will especially benefit many rural and previously isolated public schools in the Delta.

“This is a major step forward for education in Arkansas and will be particularly beneficial for many schools in the rural Delta that previously did not have the same access to technology as more urban districts. We commend Gov. Hutchinson, the legislature, local and private sector officials for this success for education in Arkansas,” said Lee Powell, Delta Caucus Director.

Rodney Fisher, Delta Caucus partner, education and health expert, former aide to Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex) said “Arkansas’ new high-speed broadband network could not be better news for students in the South Delta. Long lacking reliable broadband access, Southeast Delta students have lacked the full benefits that computers provide in order for students to succeed in a competitive workforce.

Fisher added that “Significant challenges remain. A majority of Delta students, especially the poor still do not have personal computers at home. But this is a promising first step.”

School bus seat bill law: On another note related to improvements for students in public schools, Rep. Mark McElroy’s (D-Tillar, AR) bill regarding seat belt usage in school buses was sponsored in the Senate by Sen. David Wallace (R-Leachville, AR) and signed into law by Gov. Hutchinson.

The Delta Caucus had endorsed this bill earlier in the year and congratulates Rep. McElroy, the governor and the legislature on its passage. More information on that bill is below in this message.

Arkansas’ Broadband Connectivity Now Universal

As of July 30, 2017, all public schools in Arkansas went online with a new high-speed broadband network, providing all 1,064 public schools and 477,000 students in the state with broadband access.

The work began in July 2015 using private providers with the goal of completing it in 2017, and that became a reality right on schedule.

Many schools in the Delta would have been left behind if services had not been provided, and high-speed broadband connections are now necessary for standardized testing, online courses and online field trips.

Arkansas’ program is drawing not only regional but national attention. Evan Marwell, the founder of a national nonprofit based in California called Education Super Highway that monitors school connectivity, said Arkansas connected its schools at a “remarkable” pace, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He said, “The reason you were able to get there so quickly is you had really strong state leadership, strong state funding and a really strong service community that got mobilized. There are not a lot of states that have all three of those things.”

Millie Atkins, community leader in Monroe, Louisiana and former CenturyLink Public Policy Manager who has worked on broadband access issues in the Delta for many years, said “This is awesome and demonstrates what can be accomplished when our elected officials and local communities work together on behalf of the residents. What a great win for Arkansas students!”

As of 2016, only five states in the country had universal broadband access under a federal standard of 100 kilobits per second per student: Hawaii, Kentucky, North Dakota, South Carolina and Wyoming. Arkansas now has connections of 200 kilobits per second per sudent, which is double the national standard, and all are on all fiber-optic cables that can handle much faster speeds than older copper wiring.

We still have a long way to go for broadband access for the entire population of Arkansas, and we encourage greater action in that regard. Arkansas ranks 49th in Internet access for its people as a whole, according to US News & World Report.

In total, the state will pay about $14 million per year for the new network, with the majority of the cost reimbursed by the federal E-Rate program. It paid about $13 million a year for the old, much slower network provided by the state.

Bandwidth on the new Arkansas network costs $3.70 per megabit. Marwell of the EducationSuperHighway said the national average is $7 per megabit.

The old Arkansas network cost $286 per megabit, according to a 2014 EducationSuper-Highway study. However, schools purchased roughly 95 percent of their bandwidth from the private market. That cost about another $11.30 per megabit.

The process of upgrading the public schools’ connectivity began in 2014 under former Gov. Mike Beebe. After navigating a series of technical issues, in early 2015 the Department of Education asked broadband companies to bid to provide access to schools. After several rounds of bidding, connections were eventually secured for school districts across the state. Gov. Hutchinson stayed in close communication with the Federal Communications Commission to secure federal E-rate funding.

Arkansas will pay about $14 million per year for the new network, with the majority of the cost reimbursed by the federal E-Rate program. The older, slower network provided by the state cost about $13 million annually. According Marwell of the Education Super Highway nonprofit, bandwidth in Arkansas now costs $3.70 per megabit, whereas the national average is $7 per megabit. “School Bus Seat Belts Bill”

Congratulations to Rep. Mark McElroy, who represents a district in the heart of the southeast Arkansas Delta (Chicot, Desha and part of Ashley County), for passage of his bill allowing local areas to increase seat belt usage on school buses in Arkansas.

Sen. David Wallace (R-Leachville), who represents a northeast Arkansas Delta district, sponsored the bill in the Senate and Gov. Hutchinson signed it into law.

The law enables residents to petition their local school board to decide how much of a millage increase would be reruied to add passenger seat belts to newly-purchased school buses, and to place such an increase to a vote in the next scheduled election.

In describing the bill, Rep. McElroy said “Local control was really the only way to fund this. This lets the people decide - the people who put their kids on the bus every day can decide if that’s something they want to pay for.”

McElroy said the addition of seat belts to a school bus can increase the cost of the bus by about $7,000 to $10,000. Although federal law requires smaller school buses that weigh less than 10,000 pounds, to feature lap belts, any requirements for belts on larger buses is left up to state and local legislation, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Similar legislation should be pushed in the other seven Delta states, and ultimately it’s the federal government that has the financial and national clout to mandate school bus seat belts across America.

In December, 2016, the Delta Caucus quoted Rep. McElroy (D-Tillar), in rightly saying that it’s past time to change decades-old assumptions about school bus safety and protect children in the event of a crash. Back in 1977 federal safety regulations only required school buses to employ “compartmentalization”-meaning the box-like space made by higher seats with protective padding.

At the federal level, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for the first time changed its stance in 2015, when Administrator Mark Rosekind stated that seat belts should be standard on every school bus in America.

The Delta Caucus urges the Congress and the Trump administration to make the feds put their money where their mouth is and mandate seat belt usage in every bus, which they have not done.

Back in 2011 the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration concluded that requiring seat belts nationally would reduce the number of school children killed each year from five to three.

Why have the feds stated that seat belts are a vital safety precaution that should be in every school bus, but not mandated it? It would require about $10,000 to include seat belts in every seat.

As McElroy rightly says, “Now (federal government officials) say that seat belts do save lives. They stopped short of mandating because of the money. When they say it’s not about the money, it’s about the money.”

Hey, feds, state officials and bus manufacturers-how much is the life of a child worth? Don’t quibble about $10,000 per bus when children’s safety is at stake.

Why are seat belts in their families’ cars but not when they ride a school bus?

Rep. McElroy filed his bill before the tragic accident in which six school children were killed in Chattanooga, Tennessee. So McElroy was not just chasing publicity but has advocated for seat belts in buses for a long time.

These accidents have occurred in the past and will continue to do so unless safety standards are heightened. In 2004, a bus in the Siloam Springs, Arkansas area crashed killing one student and injuring seven. In 1983, four students and five teachers were killed when a Jonesboro School District bus crashed.

Local control issue at the state level: The Congress and the President have the financial resources to mandate seat belt usage and provide funding, if they have the will and foresight to do so. However, at the state level, there are local control issues that Rep. McElroy has taken into account.

A bill was introduced in 2001 in Arkansas that required all new school buses to have seat belts and that students wear them. School administrators and bus manufacturers opposed the bill and it died in the House Education Committee.

To allow for local control, McElroy’s bill (now law) requires school districts to determine the costs of requiring seat belts on new bus purchases if more than 10% of the district’s voters filed a petition supporting this requirement. Then the district must place a millage tax to cover the costs on the ballot during the next election. If the tax passes, seat belts would be required.

Surely the great majority of school districts would place a very small tax on themselves to pay for safety for school children. Shame on those who don’t, but the local control approach of Rep. McElroy will get over the obstacle that blocked previous efforts.

We would ask for Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s support for this long overdue legislation. Rep. McElroy’s chief adviser on this issue is a seventh-grade student in southeast Arkansas named Hannah Adler, who approached him at the Cattlemen’s Pie Auction in Star City, Arkansas and discussed a project she was working on regarding the use of seat belts in school buses.

In this case a seventh-grade student is a far better expert than lobbyists in Little Rock or Washington, DC.

While passage of this state law ought to be a no-brainer deserving support from both parties in Arkansas and other states, it’s true that the local input could mean that some districts will not require their use.

For that reason, we reiterate that Congress and the White House should mandate national seat belt use in school buses across America as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said they ought to do in order to save children’s lives.

McElroy’s experience on this issue goes back literally decades. There was a dangerous episode when at the age of 17, Mark was hired to drive a school bus full of cheerleaders along the then-perilous “Pig Trail” from McGehee, Arkansas to Fayetteville. The Pig Trail of that era wound around mountainous passes and hair-pin turns in the Ozarks.

Delta Caucus partners grilled McElroy about that adventure, because we suspected that his mind was much more focused on the cheerleaders than it was on the road. He joked that he often was looking in the rear-view mirror at the girls. (In fact, he drove the bus safely, of course.)

The bus arrived safely in Fayetteville and no cheerleader was harmed, thanks to Bus Driver McElroy.

Call your state and federal officials and tell them to put seat belts in all school buses.

The Delta Caucus/Economic Equality Caucus focuses primarily on community and economic development issues, but we also advocate for key quality of life initiatives, and increasing safety for school children ought to be supported by Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike.