As a high school student in 1980, I served as a Senate Page. Every morning, I attended school on the third floor of the Library of Congress and then crossed the street to work in the Senate for rest of the day. Even the Library of Congress couldn’t help me do my homework when it was closed at night, or while I waited on the floor steps or hid out in the bill hold.

Today I can access the Library of Congress through the Internet at anytime from anywhere, except the homes of my students. Eighty-five percent of whom didn’t have internet access on March 16, 2020, when our schools went remote.

The pandemic has shown us that education needs have changed forever. The future is in developing independent learners which requires guaranteed access to the Internet. Simple fairness compels us to ensure this.

Students who live in neighborhoods with lower quality schools need the Internet even more. Villagers in developing nations are using the Internet to teach themselves to code, giving them a better shot at economic success than many young Americans without the same access.

As families and students take education into their own hands, they need broadband to access teachers, learning tools, curriculum, and information about health, safety and jobs.

Congress is considering policies to temporarily close the digital divide. They must close it permanently. Solutions need to ensure broadband reaches every student, not just during a pandemic, but always.

I lead Learn4Life, a network of nonprofit public schools for former dropouts serving 49,000 students. Our at-risk students face poverty, violence, trafficking, teen parenting, homelessness, mental health issues, English language challenges and special education needs. Most don’t have a stable home.

The “free Wi-Fi for 60 days” promises haven’t helped families that can’t sign up for a year-long contract, pay for a device or pass a credit check. We have purchased laptops for our students for less than $250 each. But hotspots and monthly broadband fees cost more than the laptops. Schools can pay for devices out of money we would otherwise spend on textbooks that are now accessible digitally. Broadband access should be free and follow the student via their school-issued device. This has become an immediate national need that won’t disappear, especially for students whose families cannot fill the gap.

National education coalitions support several proposals that would move us in the right direction. Whether our leaders are Democrats who believe that national policy is best when it reinforces community actions, or Republicans who value individual determination, these proposals are consistent with their ideals. All students deserve support in changing their lives for the better.

E-Rate is a model program that has connected most of the nation’s classrooms to the Internet during the past decade, but it doesn’t help students when they are not in a classroom. One proposal would establish a multi-billion-dollar fund within the E-Rate program to reimburse schools for purchasing laptops, tablets, hotspots, and other devices for students and teachers when they are off-campus. This proposal doesn’t go far enough because it isn’t permanent.

The President and Congress should instruct the FCC to expand E-Rate eligible services to include offsite mobile broadband. Telecom companies should assume the cost of providing students unlimited broadband on an ongoing basis. In exchange, we should reduce local control over the location of broadband towers. This will shift the cost to ratepayers who can afford a few dollars more per month, at the same time as decreasing costs related to expanding the network. This will incentivize the telecommunications industry to efficiently manage access directly through schools.

School districts and charter schools bearing the cost of providing students with broadband is not sustainable. It is a stopgap to ensure access to online distance learning resources during pandemic related closures. All students need access to the Internet now and forever.

Caprice Young, Ed. D.
National Superintendent of Schools

Dr. Caprice Young is national superintendent of schools for Learn4Life, a network of nonprofit, public charter high schools that recovers dropouts and serves at-risk students through a personalized learning model.

Written By:
Ann Abajian
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