The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) could be required to report annually about the number of K-12 students with limited or no access to high-speed internet at home. During a House committee hearing, Representative Louis Riggs, R-Hannibal, said he is proposing to require the department to include the total number of students statewide and by district without access.

State Rep. Louis Riggs, R-Hannibal, speaks on the Missouri House floor in Jefferson City on March 9, 2020 (file photo courtesy of Tim Bommel at House Communications)

Riggs has been an educator at Hannibal-LaGrange University for more than 11 years.

“The one thing we are able to take away from the COVID-19 experience is that the knowledge that our broadband access across Missouri is nowhere it should be, which is not a mystery considering we are 41st in the nation for access,” he said.

According to Riggs, schools currently have anecdotal information about student broadband access and his bill would give the state hard data.

Last year, DESE released a survey showing one in five Missouri students – about 200,000 – do not have broadband internet access at home. The survey, with responses from the state’s roughly 555 school districts and charter schools, says affordability of internet service and devices is the main problem.

Riggs said the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) maps are out of date that show underserved or unserved broadband access areas. Accurate maps can be used in the application process to obtain state or federal funding.

“The FCC requires providers to give them information but it’s not always real time data. So, we’re trying to basically get this broadband money out. We want to put it in places where the internet isn’t. This helps to determine where it isn’t,” said Riggs. “The folks who are unserved are the ones who get it first.”

Representative Paula Brown, D-Hazelwood, said internet companies are not required to offer service.

“I love where you are going with this. I just am not I see us getting from all the data to requiring somebody to provide service in that area,” said Brown. “We’re going to get the money there, but that doesn’t mean we can still make a company do it, unless of course you want to make internet a public utility.”

Shelly Mantel, a Mountain View-Birch Tree School Board member in southern Missouri and member of the Missouri School Boards’ Association, supports the measure. Mantel is an occupational therapist who serves students in nine school districts.

“So, I’ve had lots of contact with school districts struggling to meet the needs of their students, mostly because of a lot of reliability issues with our internet,” she said.

Mantel wants internet to be a utility.

“We have students in our district that don’t have running water, don’t have electricity for various reasons. But most of them have running water and electricity, which is imperative to a healthy lifestyle. Internet now is that third utility,” said Mantel. “If we don’t have access to internet, we can’t educate our children.”

She said her district shut down in February for two weeks.

“We don’t have reliable internet. So, no learning occurred in my district. The homework gap just gets wider and wider for smaller, unsupported districts. Our district itself, our school, has really good broadband. But our outliers – Shannon County is where our high school and one of our elementary schools is. Less than 9% coverage in our region,” she said. “So how can you provide online education when only 9% of your student body has reliable internet?”

Mantel said Shannon County is one of the poorest counties in the state and maybe the nation.

“The best way out of poverty is through education,” Mantel said. “We have to provide a way out for these children and if we are not providing a quality public education, then through the resources that the same children have in Columbia Public Schools, or Nixa, or Camdenton where they have a nice tax base, we are just doing an injustice to our children.”

The Missouri House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee has not yet voted on the Riggs bill.

To review House Bill 580, click here.

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