Now is not the time to go backwards when it comes to technology

Somewhere in the election-year skirmishes over the Idaho Education Network, something is getting lost.

What we’ve forgotten is that Idaho took an important step six years ago, and Idaho students are reaping the benefits today. Now is not the time to go backward when it comes to technology in schools.

The goal of the IEN was simple: To provide every K-12 school with equitable access to a full range of educational opportunities for its students and administrative applications for its staff. Many rural districts like ours did not have enough bandwidth to run a dozen computers, let alone classroom sets or one-to-one devices for multiple grades.

Education Networks of America found a way to deliver internet access to students and their teachers so that they could take advantage of all the opportunities the modern classroom could offer.

Today, the IEN now serves nearly 197,000 students at more than 530 schools across Idaho. Teachers, administrators and, most importantly, students, now rely on the IEN to further their education. In the Melba School District we now have a district-wide wireless system, one-to-one classrooms for grades 6 through 8, multiple computer labs and all in all, over 800 machines currently working and tied to the internet.

Part of the program is access to technical support and managed network expertise from Education Networks of America, the telecommunications service provider the state contracted with to build the IEN. Throughout this process ENA has been a trusted partner. The company’s local and national support team understands the unique needs of districts like ours, and supports and assist us when we need it.

But while students are making good use of the resource and asking for more, the adults are making things difficult. In this election year, we are hearing lots of issues about the IEN and how to pay for it, and not all of it is factual.

Here’s what we do know: Idaho receives significant funding through the E-rate program managed by the Federal Communications Commission to cover about 75 percent of the IEN’s budget. But because of the lawsuit initiated by Syringa Networks over the contract to build the IEN, that money is on hold. Syringa Networks has demanded $17 million from Idaho. The Idaho Attorney General’s Office has indicated that claim is baseless, but it is unlikely Idaho will receive E-rate funding until the case is resolved.

I’m grateful that the Idaho Legislature found a way to keep the IEN going in the wake of this temporary holdup, and experience from several other states tells us that once the lawsuit goes away, Idaho is likely to get the funding that’s been on hold.

It can’t happen soon enough. While the adults are bickering about the money, Idaho’s students are busy connecting to rich online resources via the IEN. In Melba, our students take over 100 dual-credit courses; we instruct students in Northern Idaho when needed, and allow access to any community group that needs to use our technology. The ability to access college credit courses and engage in distance learning opportunities and networking with classrooms and resources across the state and all over the world is amazing and we are taking advantage of it.

We can’t let melodrama stop an essential program, one that is changing lives for the better across Idaho. I know the students and families at my school are grateful for the IEN. We are grateful for Idaho’s vision. Now it’s time to put politics on a back burner, and get back to the work of serving Idaho’s future, our students.

Andrew Grover is the superintendent of the Melba School District. He ran for State Superintendent of Public Instruction and lost in the May GOP primary.