Education chief pitches $10 million Internet in schools plan


LITTLE ROCK — The Beebe administration Wednesday proposed a $10 million pilot program to help school districts across the state gain access to high-speed Internet.

The proposal was presented to the Joint Budget Committee, which is examining major state budgets this week in advance of the Legislature’s fiscal session that convenes Feb. 10. The panel took no action.

The program, supported by Gov. Mike Beebe, would be funded with $10 million from the unallocated money in the General Improvement Fund.

State Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell said in an interview that the state Department of Education would set up the rules and criteria for the grant program, where the state would math every dollar spent by a school district to access or improve high-speed Internet service.

“This is something we want to get done this fiscal session,” Kimbrell said. “This is just a stop-gap measure right now to try and help some of our struggling school districts and districts who may not have a lot of money to get hookup.”

Obtaining high-speed Internet access can be costly in the more rural areas of the state, Kimbrell said.

“This is to help them go ahead and make that decision,” he said.

Beebe has long spoken of the need for school districts across the state to have high speed Internet access, as has the Arkansas Broadband Council and the nonprofit group Connect Arkansas.

A study released two years ago by the Communications Workers of America found that Arkansas ranked 48 among the 50 states, the District of Columbia, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico in average Internet download speed.