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Louisiana School Boards Association Executive Director Scott Richard speaks at the Press Club of Baton Rouge in this October 2013 Advocate file photo.

Advocate Photo by Patrick Dennis

Eight months after a similar effort died, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Thursday that Louisiana has a plan to upgrade high-speed internet access at public schools across Louisiana without charges to the state.

The improvements can be done through a state partnership with a non-profit group called EducationSuperHighway, a California organization focused on improving internet access in public schools nationwide.

Doing so will allow nearly 164,000 students to be connected to the minimum recommended bandwidth goal, officials said.

“We have an obligation to provide our children with every possible educational tool they might need to succeed in the workforce of tomorrow,” Edwards said in a statement.

“If we expect them to compete for 21st Century jobs, then we must provide our children with a high-quality, 21st century education, which most certainly includes access to broadband and the digital opportunities that come with it.”

In March an earlier effort by the Louisiana Board of Regents to provide high-speed internet access to school districts, also without charges, died because of a lack of interest from local educators.

Higher education leaders said at the time that they were stunned by the lack of interest.

Critics said that, despite assurances that districts would not be charged, fears remained about possible hidden costs and commitments.

Backers of the latest effort said there is more interest from local educators this time, including the fact that any upgrades are optional.

Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, praised Thursday's announcement.

"The LSBA welcomes the opportunity to focus on enhancing the great work that each local district has done to ramp up high quality internet capability for learning," Richard said in a statement.

"Local districts have leveraged their federal dollars to significantly increase technology in classrooms in Louisiana, and, it's our hope that this collaboration will further that effort," he said.

Richard, who is often aligned with Edwards on education debates, criticized the Regents' plan earlier this year.

He said at the time that the plan lacked details and that a short deadline to act on the proposal caused problems.

School districts are entitled to federal discounts – called e-rates – through a federal program for construction of high-quality fiber networks.

The latest initiative is designed to build on state efforts to ensure that every school district has a fiber connection, affordable high-speed broadband and robust wi-fi in every classroom.

Nearly 450,000 students in 61 of Louisiana's 69 school districts are in settings that meet the recommended bandwidth goal, according to state figures.

The plan spelled out by the governor will provide districts with technical assistance, tools and resources to help them plan network upgrades and obtain the maximum federal funds available.

The state's key partner in the effort, EducationSuperHighway, is working with governors in 23 states covering more than 22 million students.

The group's services are offered without charge.

EducationSuperHighway is funded by national philanthropic organizations, including the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Officials of the group met with aides to Edwards and others earlier this year.

Other partners include the Louisiana Department of Education, Louisiana School Boards Association and the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents.

"Louisiana students deserve access to technology, and school systems should be commended for their efforts to make that happen," state Superintendent of Education John White said in a statement.

While the effort that died in March was spearheaded by the Board of Regents, Edwards backed it.

The governor said at the time that he was committed to finding the dollars for the internet upgrade.

He blamed part of the problem on communication problems between the regents and local superintendents.

Edwards said an annual report done by EducationSuperHighway shows that 88 percent of Louisiana school districts are meeting the Federal Communications Commission’s recommended minimum connectivity required for students to take advantage of digital learning.

That is up from 79 percent in 2016 and 67 percent in 2015.

Also, 99 percent of schools in Louisiana have high-speed fiber connections, and 146,000 Louisiana students have gained access to high-speed bandwidth since 2015.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.