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Alabama House Passes Legislation to Match Federal E-rate Dollars in Rural Schools

The $12 million would help poor and rural schools build out wireless networks.

by Tim Lockette, The Anniston Star, Ala. / February 24, 2016

(TNS)  — MONTGOMERY, Ala. — In a rare unanimous vote, the Alabama House of Representatives passed a bill to free up $12 million that could help poor and rural schools get wireless broadband inside their walls.

"The beauty of this bill is the equity," said Rep. Donnie Chesteen, R-Geneva, the bill's sponsor.

Lawmakers voted 105-0 for the bill, often called the Wired Act, that aims to fix a convoluted problem that has held some schools back where information technology is concerned, Chesteen says.

For years, the federal government has helped local schools buy computers through E-rate, the money it collects through a service fee charged to telecommunications companies. To get E-rate money, though, local systems have to pitch in matching funds.

Small and low-income districts often don't have the money for those matching funds, Chesteen said, and 91 districts are poised to miss out on a large E-rate payout if they don't make a mid-March deadline. Chesteen's bill would take $12 million from a state fund for school technology to pay for the match.

Jenel Travis, technology director for Calhoun County Schools, said the bill wouldn't have a major effect on county schools, which are already largely wired for iPads and other electronic devices. Still, Travis said, county schools just a few years ago didn't have enough wireless coverage to support the computer use that is common in schools today.

That's still the case in some small districts, she said.

"They can't do one-to-one computing because they can't support the devices," she said.

Chesteen's bill grew out of a much-debated computers-in-schools bill proposed years ago by Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville. Dial wanted a $100 million bond issue to provide schools with computing devices, with a plan to replace traditional textbooks with electronic texts.

Dial's bill met with skepticism from lawmakers who felt the computers — "pen-enabled" tablets in the wording of the bill — would be obsolete as soon as they were delivered.

"We don't want to spend 20 years paying off a bond for a pen-enabled device that's going to be out of date in a couple of years," Chesteen said. In further discussions of the bill, he said, lawmakers found that many schools didn't have the Wi-Fi systems they needed to use tablets widely even if they had them.

The bill was part of the House GOP agenda for the year, but it found broad support among Democrats.

"I don't have an amendment, I don't have a lot of questions, I don't have anything but to say thank you," said Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville.

Chesteen was careful to point out that his bill, which pays for wireless inside schools, is different from a proposal floated by Gov. Robert Bentley earlier this month to provide better broadband connections to schools.

The bill heads to the Senate for a vote.

©2016 The Anniston Star (Anniston, Ala.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC. 

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