JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Legislation in the Mississippi House proposes using $50 million of the state's federal coronavirus relief funding to improve broadband access for students in underserved areas during the pandemic.
“These kids have been out of school since the middle of March, and some of them have had zero, if little instruction since because of broadband accessibility,” Republican Rep. C. Scott Bounds, sponsor of House Bill 1788, said on the House floor Friday. Mississippi ranked 49th in broadband coverage in 2018, according to data from BroadbandNow. A 2017 report by the Census Bureau showed that only 61% of Mississippians had access to broadband in 2015.
The legislature intends to finish work on spending plans before the new budget year begins on Wednesday. Mississippi has received $1.25 billion from the federal government through the coronavirus relief bill. The state is spending $300 million on grants for small businesses, and officials still need to decide how to spend most of the rest of the money.
Bounds, of Philadelphia, said HB 1788 would task the Department of Education with administering the $50 million to public schools, Native American tribal schools and private schools throughout the state on a first-come, first-served basis. District superintendents would then negotiate and contract with broadband providers. Districts would identify students in need through Federal Communications Commission data, census blocks and district surveys, Bounds said.
Bounds said leaving it up to the districts to connect with families will allow them to be innovative to fill the needs of each student.
“We can't come up with a cookie-cutter approach sitting in this building that will fit every area,” Bounds said. "This is a broad bill; I understand that. It is a broad bill, but it allows a lot of flexibility for districts to educate students."
Republican Rep. Brady Williamson, of Oxford, said he sees providing broadband accessibility to students in the state as a key priority, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, when many districts have turned to virtual education. However, he warned against going forward without a statewide bidding process.
“(Students have) been waiting awhile. Can they wait a little longer for a bidding process?” he asked Friday, on the House floor. “More times than not, a no-bid contract comes under scrutiny.”
Bounds said bidding processes can take a long time, and students need access to broadband when school starts in August. He said there isn't time to wait.
The $50 million attached to the bill would need to be spent by Dec. 1, 2020. Any unused money would go to Mississippi's unemployment trust fund, Bounds said.
Leah Willingham is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.