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OUR VIEW: All schools need quality web access. But how?

THE ISSUE: Bill would give rural Illinois schools high-speed internet

OUR VIEW: A good problem to solve, but is this the right approach?

How often do you use the internet? Don’t even count all the times it runs in the background on your computer or phone, scanning for new information to deliver notifications as needed. And take away most of the connected devices you might have, like a refrigerator, thermostat or doorbell camera.

Just think about the number of times each day you intentionally access a website, stream music, send an email or connect to Netflix, YouTube to watch video content. And that’s just personal business. How productive is everyone at the office if the network goes down unexpectedly?

Could you live your life without the internet? Sure. Millions of us did so for thousands of years. It’s not exactly clean water, one of the physiological necessities like clothing and shelter that constitute the base layer of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. But millions of us managed thousands of years without electricity, too, and good luck finding someone today who would voluntarily go without.

The internet is nearly ubiquitous, and anyone who makes or spends money can quickly come up with a dozen ways it makes modern life not just simpler but also more efficient. And sure, it’s not without drawbacks. Neither are electricity or the heating and air conditioning systems we use to live in this climate 12 months a year.

But it’s no great stretch to say reliable, high-speed internet access is an essential component of business and education in the 21st century. And yet the way the information superhighway has been deployed — like most infrastructure throughout history — in many ways favors larger population centers.

This is all to set the stage for consideration of recently proposed legislation in Springfield that would result in access to high-speed internet service for 100 rural Illinois school districts that serve more than 90,000 students.

Sponsors, according to the State Journal-Register, are state Sens. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, Sam McCann, R-Plainview, and Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant, D-Shorewood. Manar said the one-time expense would solve problems for schools that can't stream educational videos, use online testing or offer remote learning. The idea isn’t revolutionary. Almost any district that can have a good network already does, because the ability to use technology to save money in several budget line items is utterly practical.

“We expect schools and teachers to solve all of society’s ills; we debate that all the time in the legislature. Yet we fail to equip them with the tools necessary to get the job done,” Manar said. “With the evidence-based model now in place, this is the next logical step for us to take to bridge inequity in our public schools in the state of Illinois.”

We agree with Manar — to a point. Find a school superintendent and you’ll find someone with a physical equipment wish, want and need list. Inequity is something lawmakers should always be trying to fix. But it’s also wrong to look at the evidence-based model as fully in place, especially as there is still haggling about who gets paid when and how much. And meanwhile the State Board of Education approved a request for $7.5 billion in additional state aid — a 91 percent increase.

Building good internet networks for schools in need is an easy sell from the “why” standpoint. “How” is a different issue — the estimated cost ranges from $75,000 to $420,000 per school. And while the state's School Infrastructure Fund has more than $36 million, we direct you back to those superintendents who have lists of needs. If a life safety project anywhere is unfunded, moving it behind internet access in line is going to meet with strong resistance.

The legislation would set aside more than $16 million in state funds from the upcoming budget. It could gain as much as $50 million in matching funds from the federal government. When the ISBE wants $7.5 million, sending $16 million another direction isn’t helpful. Conversely, anyone would be happy to use $16 million to draw $50 million that wouldn’t otherwise come here (and yes, all tax dollars are our tax dollars in some form or fashion, be they state or federal).

A 2016 Federal Communications Commission report says 40 percent of American in rural areas don't have access to broadband internet, compared to just 4 percent lacking access in urban areas. That disparity needs to be addressed. But don’t be surprised if this new proposal isn’t the answer. Illinois is desperately underfunded as it is — with little apparent desire to reduce expenses — so adding capital outlays doesn’t seem prudent without a complete accounting for what other important projects would be stalled and how soon the new investment would yield a return.

The end goal is good and we hope lawmakers work for a solution. But this first proposal offers more questions than answers.

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