As many of you know, geography can play a significant role in the cost and availability of services important to education. Salaries, transportation and food service, for example, all have costs associated with them that will vary by location in the state. Due to travel and shipping distances and cost of living factors, this disparity may be understandable. There are other areas where the differences are harder to justify and reach a level of true inequity. Internet service is one such area.
Based on FY2016 data submitted to the Minnesota Department of Education, the average general fund spending, per student, to provide Internet access in the seven-county metro area was $6.02 while the average general fund cost per student in Greater Minnesota was $18.34. What other services within education cost three times as much if your school is in Aitkin County than if it is in Anoka County? There may be a few, but, these are averages. The inequity surfaces when you drill down into the data.
Regionally, if your school is in the Southwest metro area, the average out of pocket cost, that is, costs paid out of general fund sources after all state and federal funding (E-rate, for example) is applied is $2.98 per student. In Southwest (Greater) Minnesota, the average cost is $40.26 per student. Geographic location now means the cost is over 13 times as much for the same services. It gets worse.
The lowest out of pocket cost paid by a district in the state is $0.86 per student. Compare that to the highest cost district who pays 170 times that number or $146.77 per student and you have an inequity that I don’t believe you can find in any other service category within education.
The Telecommunications/Internet Equity Aid (TEA) program was designed in the early 2000’s to incent districts to work through cooperatives to drive Internet costs down as well as provide relief to districts who were in high cost areas of the state. The program funds costs AFTER all federal E-rate subsidies are applied. Over the years, over 90% of districts in the state entered into cooperative arrangements for broadband services dramatically reducing their costs and providing high quality service. In 2009 and earlier, the program fully funded all requests for cost reimbursement with a cap of $7.5 million. In 2010, the cap was cut to $3.75 million. Since then, costs have risen to nearly $9.5 million. Thus, today, the fund pays only about 40% of the requests from districts. The other 60% that is paid from district general fund dollars is where the inequity surfaces.
Think about it this way. There are districts in Minnesota that use over 2% of their general education aid to pay for Internet services for their students and staff. That’s the extreme high end, but many districts in the state use close to 1% or more for the same service. On the other end, many districts use 1/10th of 1% or less of their general education aid for Internet services. That said, if the Minnesota legislature would, again, fully fund the TEA program, it would be like giving some districts in the state an additional 1% to 2% increase in their general education aid, above and beyond the funds approved by the legislature in May, and would result in additional funding for all districts. Most importantly, it would eliminate the inequity that exists.
What would this cost? Currently, the program is capped at $3.75 million. An additional $6 million would fully fund the program for about 2 years. An additional $7 million would fund it for at least five years, and possibly more. A bill to increase the funding received a hearing in the Senate last Spring but did not reach the house and was not included in the omnibus bill.
This funding could come back in a supplemental budget bill next Spring. If that were to happen, it would need support from all of us and other educational groups as well. It seems to be a low cost fix to a very large inequity for some districts which still has a benefit to every district in the state. Conversations now with colleagues, board members, legislators and other key education leaders would help to move this issue forward and provide an opportunity to correct an inequity that shouldn’t exist. •