New Legislation to Tackle the Digital Divide

The first National Education Technology Plan, published in 1996, brought the existence of a Digital Divide in education to light. It served as a call-to-action for schools and policymakers to address the inequities created by lack of access to computers and the Internet. It also corresponded with the establishment of the E-Rate program as part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Since that time, schools and districts across the country have taken advantage of E-rate funding to wire their buildings and connect their students. Although the majority of districts now report that they have reached the minimum bandwidth requirements within their buildings, fewer than 10% of administrators feel as though ALL of their students have access once they leave school.

To concretely describe the disadvantages that millions of students face once they leave school, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel coined the term Homework Gap. Without access to devices and high-speed Internet, students lack the technological capacity to access online resources and content, create and connect with their peers, as well as engage in learning opportunities outside of school. As Commissioner Rosenworcel explained in a press release last fall, “The Homework Gap is the cruelest part of the digital divide. We need to bridge this gap and fix this problem. Our kids deserve nothing less and our shared economic future depends on it.

By using the term Homework Gap to describe the direct effects of the Digital Divide on the lives of students, Commissioner Rosenworcel has created a concrete mental image of the educational inequity facing students in underserved communities and rural areas. As such, organizations such as EveryoneOn, The 1 Million Project, and Verizon Innovative Learning have donated technology to increase student access, and groups like CoSN, ISTE, SETDA, and SHLB have advocated for legislation to address the broader problem. Thankfully, representatives in the Senate have recently proposed two bills to further address this challenge.

WiFi Access on School Buses Bill

Inspired by the story of student-athlete Jonah Madrid from Hatch Valley High School in New Mexico, Senator Tom Udall and Commissioner Rosenworcel began advocating for expanded E-Rate funding to put WiFi in buses in 2016.  At a round-table discussion about the effects of the Homework Gap on students in rural and low-income communities, students explained the myriad strategies that they employed to find WiFi after school hours. From working in school parking lots to standing outside local restaurants, the students explained the challenges of gaining access – particularly after returning from sports events that may require over an hour of travel each way.

In March, Senator Udall – along with Senators Gardner (R-CO), Whitehouse (D-RI), and Cortez Masto (D-NV) – presented bipartisan legislation to the Senate that would require the FCC to allow E-Rate funding to cover the installation of Wi-Fi hotspots on school buses carrying students to and from school as well as school-related activities. Particularly in rural areas and tribal communities where WiFi is often not available, and access within the community severely limited, adding access to buses can have a tremendous benefit. As Keith Kruger, CEO of CoSN explains, adding WiFi to buses turns them into “learning space[s] on wheels, recapturing learning time [for students] outside of school.”

For example, the Coachella Valley Unified School District in California reported an initial increase in graduation rates after installing WiFi in buses and leaving them parked in neighborhoods. Not only did this increase access for the students, but it also provided a benefit to the community. Similarly, Google has been implementing what they refer to as Rolling Study Halls in over a dozen districts. These WiFi-enabled busses increase student access and provide additional support thanks to the presence of educators on board. Participating districts have reported early gains in reading and math proficiency as well as improved technology fluency thanks to the expanded opportunities for learning.

However, despite these initial gains, the broader challenge of ensuring digital equity remains a challenge. Therefore, Senator Patty Murray from Washington has proposed a new Digital Equity Act.

The Digital Equity Act

Recognizing that ALL citizens – both students and adults – increasingly require access to technology and high-speed Internet for communication, information, education, employment, health-care, and a host of other factors, Senator Murray’s bill authorizes over one billion dollars in federal grant funding over the next five years to support digital inclusion programs. The bill, endorsed by 15 Senators, creates two separate grant programs to promote digital equity. Each would be operated by the U.S. Department of Commerce National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), and support a range of opportunities to improve access to technology as well as the acquisition of digital literacy.

The first grant would be a formula-funded program designed to help states create and implement digital equity plans. However, the second provides funding for national competitive grants to support digital equity projects proposed and run by groups, coalitions, and communities. As explained by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, all communities require equitable access to high-speed internet, devices that meet the needs of the users, and “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills.” This bill would provide federal funding to increase digital equity such that all citizens have access to education, democracy, the economy, and society in a networked, global world.

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Beth Holland

Dr. Beth Holland leads Research & Measurement as a Partner at The Learning Accelerator and is the Digital Equity Project Director at the Consortium for School Networking.

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