By Senator Catherine Cortez Masto
Nevada’s small towns and rural communities are home to some of our state’s most inspiring students. Yet, for many young men and women in Nevada’s rural and underserved communities, more needs to be done to tear down barriers to high-quality education and to provide crucial resources to help students thrive. That is why it has been one of my priorities in the Senate to advocate for more funding and support for our nation’s public schools, community colleges, vocational schools, and universities; particularly in low-income and rural school districts where the need is often most profound.
Rural school districts across Nevada are already in the midst of promoting exciting initiatives to broaden their student’s educational opportunities. Lyon County is preparing to install more than two thousands new computers into schools across the county. In January, I joined a bipartisan effort to urge President Trump to create a federal-state partnership to invest in the infrastructure of our nation’s public schools so that more districts can follow in Lyon County’s footsteps in ensuring their schools are properly funded, and modernized for the 21st century.
Last month, I held video conferences with high school students from Battle Mountain High School and Carlin Combined High School about the importance of financial literacy and civic engagement. Thanks to an internet connection and a television monitor, I was able to hold conversations with bright high school students in Nevada while I was working 2,381 miles away in Washington. These students are ambitious leaders engaging on important topics to our state. We need to ensure that more rural Nevada students have the same learning opportunities as the students in Lyon County, Battle Mountain and Carlin.
Unfortunately, too many counties in our state continue to lack access to broadband service. This unequal access to quality broadband internet puts our rural students at a disadvantage, especially those who rely on distance learning opportunities to complete their educational goals. Every Nevada student and educator should have access to the unlimited knowledge and vital services the internet offers.
The technology that enabled me to connect with students in Nevada is being utilized to educate so many of our students. Last summer, I toured Great Basin College’s Elko campus, where students in the college’s Health Sciences program were being taught via video conference by a professor in Tonopah. Great Basin College offers a variety of distance learning opportunities for its students, allowing students who live in faraway rural areas to pursue a college education without traveling hundreds of miles to the nearest campus.
I was glad to see our rural communities’ education priorities represented in the recent omnibus spending bill, which includes funding for new USDA administered distance learning grants and $600 million to develop high-speed broadband infrastructure aimed at expanding internet access into remote and underserved rural areas. Funding for broadband must be included in any future infrastructure package that comes to Congress because innovative programs like those at Great Basin College can only reach students in rural areas if the infrastructure is there to support them. During my video conferences with high school students, I saw the challenge with broadband for these schools firsthand. We overcame the slow load times during our video call but it reinforced to me that no student in Nevada should be held back from their full potential because they lack access to quality, high-speed broadband services.
That is why I recently introduced two bipartisan bills to ensure that students in rural communities have the resources they need to succeed. I made sure the bipartisan Moving FIRST Act included specific provisions aimed at providing federal funding to rural communities for innovative projects to increase transportation and internet access. In addition, I am working to make sure America leads the world in next generation, 5G internet. The Streamlining Permitting to Enable Efficient Development of Broadband Infrastructure Act of 2017, or SPEED Act, would cut red tape for providers seeking to expand ultra-high speed broadband networks and includes a specific provision aimed at studying challenges for communities surrounded by federally owned land. I have also asked the FCC to provide strong support for the Universal Service Fund’s E-Rate and high-cost programs, which help fund broadband at schools and libraries and provide aid to carriers who serve our most remote communities.
I will continue to make this a priority in Congress because this impacts the future of our kids, our economy, and our state.