Alaska House Approves Bill to Expand Rural-School Internet Access Following Education Funding Cut

Alaska’s remote schools could receive additional state and federal assistance to enhance internet connectivity despite Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s recent veto of a multi-faceted education bill.

On Thursday morning, the Alaska House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed House Bill 193 with a 36-4 vote, aiming to allocate up to $39.4 million in state aid for rural schools to match federal funding designated for enhancing their internet infrastructure.

Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, a key proponent of the bill, anticipates swift Senate action and has received signals from the governor’s office suggesting Dunleavy’s willingness to approve it into law.

There is an urgent need for legislative action as March 27 marks the final federal deadline for remote school districts to secure funding that covers 90% of their internet expenses.

If districts miss this deadline, they will have to wait until the following year to reapply.

Presently, these districts are constrained by a maximum speed of 25 megabits per second, falling short of the latest “broadband” criteria set forth by the Federal Communications Commission in a recent publication.

HB 193 would offer state matching funds for federal grants to support speeds up to 100 mbps.

“We’re running out of time. We have a strict deadline in seven days,” Edgmon emphasized on Wednesday night.

While 151 schools benefited from the program last year, stakeholders argue that the existing bandwidth and speed limitations are inadequate for modern educational demands.

“In today’s educational landscape, reliable high-speed internet is indispensable for various purposes, from virtual meetings to online assessments,” Edgmon stated.

Rep. Thomas Baker, R-Kotzebue, highlighted the sluggish internet speeds in certain schools, where accessing a Wikipedia page could take as long as 15 minutes, prompting administrators to ration internet access within the premises.

Rep. Alyse Galvin, I-Anchorage, stressed the urgency of supporting the bill, citing testimonies revealing that some students encountered significant delays in completing online tests due to inadequate connectivity, contrasting the situation with Anchorage where students could finish the test in a day.

“For a functional public education system, we must address this disparity,” Galvin asserted.

The funding for the internet enhancement initiative was initially part of Senate Bill 140, a comprehensive education measure approved by both chambers in February. However, Dunleavy vetoed the bill, and an attempt to overturn the decision narrowly failed on Monday.

House Rules Committee Chair Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, acknowledged the instrumental role of Alaska Beacon’s coverage in expediting the House’s passage of HB 193 late Wednesday and early Thursday.

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