The Move to Digital

A couple of days ago, Governor Jim Doyle announced a grant from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act to improve the state’s telecommunications network. The goal of the award is to bring fiber optic broadband to 380 Wisconsin communities.  The $28.7 million BadgerNet project will expand infrastructure for rural schools and libraries, via phone lines, throughout the State.

Access to the Internet in the U.S. is about as common as having cable TV. Unfortunately, it’s still a luxury many families cannot afford.  The ongoing cuts in work hours and benefits, or loss of a job altogether, is of course tragic. For many of us, access to technology is something we tend to take for granted. In our increasingly technology-dependent age, access to a computer and the Internet is becoming quite essential. But many of our low-income families cannot afford a computer or Internet access in their home. Many low-income families are fighting hard just to maintain basic living standards.  With education becoming more dependent on the Internet, it’s even more critical that we level the playing field for all students and families.

But, as Mike Ivey of the Cap Times pointed out in his story this week, the reality is that Madison’s poverty rate is climbing — rising nine times faster than the rate of other U.S. cities, according to a new report from the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution, cited by Ivey. Since 2000, the poverty rate (defined as a family of four with an income under $21,800) in Madison has jumped from 15 percent to 17.7 percent. That’s one in every six residents. One of every two students in the Madison Metropolitan School District is now considered “low income” using the free and reduced lunch standard. In 1990, just one in five Madison school kids qualified.  According to the American Community Survey, an annual estimate from the Census Bureau, Madison added nearly 8,400 residents living below the poverty line between 2000 and 2008, a 29 percent increase.  Ivey cited the report’s prediction that “Madison will likely see its poverty rate jump another 1.1 percent this year, surpassing the average poverty rate for the 95 largest U.S. cities.”

In addition to BadgerNet, our school district is also trying to improve the various schools’ access to the internet and to better define its uses as a communication tool.  This access needs to be extended to the families of the students it services.  Jeff Richgels at the Cap Times reported yesterday that due to cost and a lack of digital literacy, over a third of the country does not have high-speed Internet access in the home (defined as non dial-up service).  Broadcasting & Cable reported on an FCC consumer survey that found that “more than a third of the non-adopters (28 million adults) said they don’t have broadband because the price of service is too high (15%); they can’t afford a computer; installation costs are too high (10%); or they don’t want a long-term service contract (9%). According to the survey, the average monthly broadband bill is $41.”

A recent story done by WKOW pointed to the conundrum, “a hard copy of the monthly school news letter is becoming less common these days. That’s one reason why Madison School leaders say they need to change with the times, and find new ways to communicate with parents and community members.”

MMSD posts plenty of information online in the form of press releases, a monthly newsletter, and a video of school-related interest.  They also have Infinite Campus so that parents can keep in touch with what is going on with their child.  Infinite Campus is a district-wide student information system designed to manage attendance, grades, schedules, test scores, and other information about the students in the MMSD.  The Parent Portal is a confidential and secure Web site where you can get current information about your child’s school attendance and grades.   E-mail hyperlinks facilitate communication with classroom teachers. In addition, schools post important information on the home page, such as events, notices, etc,. Attendance information is also available. The Parent Portal allows report cards to be viewed online and printed.

My concern is that in our move to a more online world, we are ignoring a large amount of low income and minority families that do not have an email address.  One example of this came to mind recently. Every year, MMSD asks parents to voice their opinions about the “climate” or feeling at their children’s schools.  They use the survey results to assist with the school improvement planning process.  This survey is available on the MMSD website although, it seems it was never sent out as a press release or included in the MMSD newsletter. The School Climate Survey was sent to the parent’s email address list as generated by each individual school. Surprisingly, this list is apparently not very comprehensive; two of our PTO officers were not on the list, despite having filled out the forms at registration and regularly receive emails from school personnel.

I hope that computers and the internet become as inexpensive as televisions and basic cable service.  Until they are affordable, MMSD cannot rely on the Public Library to be the way for low income families or minority families to access the internet and communicate with their children’s school district.

Jackie Woodruff

(Editor’s Note: We apologize for not crediting Mike Ivey’s fantastic reporting in this post in an earlier iteration posted yesterday)


Filed under "education finance", Accountability, Best Practices, Uncategorized

2 responses to “The Move to Digital

  1. Jackie Woodruff

    This comment was from a low income parent that read this post and emailed me directly. I wanted to share it with you:

    “We were able to get our internet/phone/cable combo down to $132 (over $30 is taxes and fees) after we rec’d notice it was going to increase to over $170. I tried doing dial-up (which I get for free being a UW employee) last week and I could not easily access Infinite Campus, my email, or my on-line checking acct (which I do most bill and mortgage paying with). I don’t know how Charter can keep going up and up and up when the service is the same.

    Maybe they should start concentrating on wireless access in the poorer neighborhoods rather than downtown? One would still have to get a computer, but one that is used for basic internet is relatively cheap.

    If you don’t have cable, is there access to the MMSD channels?

  2. Jackie Woodruff

    The State Journal staff posted: Wednesday, March 3, 2010 9:15 pm

    Nearly $9 million in borrowed federal dollars and investment from local businesses and government will go toward expanding broadband Internet access in the Madison, Middleton and Monona areas, Gov. Jim Doyle announced Wednesday.
    The Metropolitan United Fiber Network project will add about 100 miles of fiber optic line and other Internet infrastructure to help bring broadband to schools, hospitals and businesses, the governor announced in a news release.
    Funding for the work is coming from a $5.1 million grant through the federal stimulus act and $3.7 million from local city and school district coffers; UW-Madison; Dane County; Xiocom Wireless, which operates MadCity Broadband; and others.

    The work is expected to expand or improve broadband access for up to 47,000 households and 5,000 businesses.

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