Senators’ letter to Congress highlights need for dedicated funding for digital access in student homes

The sudden and extended closures of America’s schools have brought into the spotlight a persistent problem well known to education advocates: unequal access to both internet access and devices in student homes. Across the country, 12 million students do not have internet access at home. According to a 2019 report from the Public Policy Institute of California, nearly 16 percent (roughly 945,000) of California’s school-aged children had no internet connection at home in 2017, while 27 percent (about 1.7 million) did not have broadband access. The issue is even more prevalent for low-income households and students in rural areas.

In an April 2 letter to congressional leaders, 35 U.S. senators, including California’s Diane Feinstein and Kamala Harris, strongly urged Congress to provide dedicated funds to address this issue in the next COVID-19 emergency relief package so that no child falls behind in their education. A $2 billion allocation for broadband access for schools was included in an earlier version of the $2 trillion stimulus bill but was not part of the final package signed by President Donald Trump on March 27.

“We write to express our disappointment with the lack of funding dedicated for distance learning in the third coronavirus relief package that recently passed Congress,” the letter states. “We have repeatedly called for concrete funding to help ensure that all K-12 students have adequate home internet connectivity if their schools close due to the ongoing pandemic. … We request that the next coronavirus relief package include at least $2 billion in E-Rate funds for schools and libraries to provide Wi-Fi hotspots or other devices with Wi-Fi capability to students without adequate connectivity at their home.”

Research shows that students without home internet access score lower in reading, math and science. The letter expresses the senators’ concern that these existing inequities will only be exacerbated by the many schools that are making the switch from in-person instruction to distance learning. “We believe providing funds to the E-Rate program is the best way to help students continue their education at home,” the letter continues. “The E-Rate program is, and has been for over two decades, an essential source of funding to connect the nation’s schools and libraries to the internet. As the coronavirus pandemic develops, this program offers an immediate solution that may help mitigate the impact on our most vulnerable families. We believe additional funding for E-Rate would greatly narrow the homework gap during the current crisis and help ensure that all students can continue to learn.”

In an April 1 press conference, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a partnership with Google that will provide 4,000 donated Chromebooks and 100,000 WiFi hotspots with a minimum of three months free access to California households in need. The California Department of Education will be distributing these resources, prioritizing rural communities. “I am calling on other companies to match Google’s investment today to ensure our students and teachers have the resources they need to continue their education during this time,” said Gov. Newsom.

Newsom’s call to other tech companies reflects California’s significant need — the Governor estimated that in addition to the 100,000 points of access provided by Google, the state still needs more than 150,000 more to meet student need. CSBA continues to work with the state and private sector to help mitigate barriers so students can receive meaningful instruction during this unprecedented situation.

Read the full letter »