New Use of Federal Education Money Brings Broadband to Rural North Carolina County

Last Updated: February 26, 2010

This article appeared in the February 2010 Rural Policy Matters.

Editor's note: Links are free and current at time of posting, but may require registration or expire over time.

Students in rural Bertie County, North Carolina will be getting broadband Internet at their homes beginning next fall, thanks to an innovative new use of federal education dollars.

“Schools have used their Title I funding to try and remediate kids rather than deploy strategies to level the playing field between kids in poverty and more affluent kids,” says Bertie schools superintendent Chip Zullinger. “This is a strategy to even the playing field.” 

Bertie County enrolls about 3,000 students K–12 and has a student poverty rate of more than 80%. As in many rural counties most residents have not been able to get broadband; the county’s connectivity rate is just 10%. This project will bring broadband to an additional 1,500 homes of students.

“The minute low-income students walk out the door of the school they lose ground to students who have more learning resources at home,” continues Zullinger. “Middle class suburban kids have access to Internet and all its resources, and so do their parents.”

Innovative Use of Federal Dollars

Bringing the resources of the Internet to students across the county, regardless of their family’s economic situation, became a motivating factor for the project.

“There is a basic right of a kid to an open school house door,” says Zullinger. “And more and more, schooling is being pushed toward and through technology. It’s almost a civil rights issue to make sure all students have that access.”

So Bertie County decided to use a portion of its Title I, stimulus, and IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) funding to buy Internet connections for students.

“We had to get federal approvals to use the money in this way,” says Zullinger who went straight to North Carolina’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson. “She understood immediately what we were trying to do and why,” adds Zullinger.

Rather than try to create its own network, the county approached the for-profit Internet provider Century Link, which saw the potential of the project for its own bottom line. Eventually a deal was reached to provide “naked” broadband — Internet only, no phone and no cable — to 1,500 homes of students for $20 a month for five years.

“This is a five-year contract for $300,000 a year,” says Zullinger. “That’s a $1.5 million dollar investment in infrastructure and represents a 20% growth model for Internet service in the county.”

Computers and Training

With connectivity services lined out, Bertie County received an $850,000 grant to purchase computers and software and provide training to teachers and parents from the Golden Leaf Foundation, a North Carolina foundation chartered by the state with tobacco settlement money.

“This funding will enable us to work with teachers to develop online modules related to their curriculum,” explains Assistant Bertie County Superintendent Kenneth Perry.

“And, we’ll be able to provide Internet training to parents as well. There will be a lot of focus in both groups on communicating with each other,” Perry continues. “There have been so many breakages between parents and schools. Technology may take some of that away. Maybe it will be easier for parents to communicate virtually than to come to the school, so this may be a way to make those relationships more positive.”

Economic Development

The school’s investment in broadband service for the county provides enough incentive and support for Century Link to build out broadband services for the entire county, according to Zullinger.

“Once broadband is available to the homes of students, the infrastructure will be in place throughout the county so that other residents can buy broadband access,” he explains.

That means a lot more economic development opportunity for small businesses in the county, Zullinger says, citing Greene County, North Carolina as an example of a rural county that provided affordable broadband and saw its small business economy expand at an unprecedented rate and also saw big improvements in student achievement and college-going rates.

The county is planning a publicity campaign to help spread the news and generate excitement and involvement in the county. “We are working on a logo,” says Zullinger, “and talking with people about painting it on their old tobacco barns. Somehow that just seems appropriate.” 

Read more from the February 2010 Rural Policy Matters.

Related Categories: Rural Policy Matters

Related Tags: Community Development, Technology, Title I