E-rate program regulations and innovative district solutions to digital divide explored in webinar

A June 25 webinar hosted by New America’s Open Technology Institute featured advocates for closing the homework gap and three school district representatives from across the nation attempting to do so right now. At least 7 million students in the U.S. currently lack broadband access and “even when schools are back full time, those 7 million or more students will still be on the wrong side of a persistent homework gap that reinforces education inequities, especially in low-income and rural areas where broadband is unavailable or unaffordable,” said Michael Calabrese, director at the OTI.

The main — and unanswered — question during the webinar was why school district and advocacy organization pleas to the Federal Communications Commission to loosen E-rate regulations have been largely ignored.

Perhaps the most surprising person on the panel to be asking that question was FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, known in education for coining the term ’homework gap.’ “I think it is essential that we take this program that’s been around since 1996 and we make it meet this moment,” she said. “We have a national crisis. Let’s figure out how to use the tools that are already in the law to get students connected. Since classrooms have now migrated to students’ homes, we need to look at that statute and apply it to today’s situation.”

Rosenworcel is one of five commissioners and lamented about her inability to convince the majority that these measures are needed, although she believes the coronavirus has opened a door to understanding. Speaking about her recent appearance as a witness in a U.S. Senate hearing, she said, “There’s finally more recognition that there is a tool in the law that can help schools get every student connected, but now we need to do something just mildly audacious — we have to use it.”

District technology leaders from across the country shared their experiences during school closures caused by the coronavirus to underscore the need for more funding dedicated to getting broadband access to students in their homes. Randal Phelps from East Side Union High School District in San Jose shared the district’s innovative approach of partnering with the city to provide free community WiFi to those in its district boundaries. The district’s journey began where many do — with a problem they have identified and a lack of funding to address it. The district was able to place a technology bond on the ballot, which passed with 77 percent approval. This has allowed the district to begin the program, which they are rolling out in phases. Phelps said the location of the district points to how widespread the access issue is. “It’s a problem even in the heart of Silicon Valley,” he said. “Like water and power, we believe internet access is something people absolutely need to have to live in the modern world.”

Across the country in Iowa, the Council Bluffs Community School District sought out community and foundation support to fund and provide resources to their effort to supply community WiFi. District Chief Technology Officer David Fringer regrets not being able to use E-rate funds — especially since the district has unused money in the program. “We’ve not spent all of our Category 2 E-rate funding and if the formula remains the same, we will never be able to spend all of it,” he explained. “We are able to use that money to supply very high-quality, internal networks to our schools — access points, switches, routers, all of the things you need to make that happen — and it doesn’t cost as much as the money we have in the budget. So, we just leave money on the table because of the rules.”

He’d like to be able to take some of the great networks that E-rate has enabled them to build and share that with the community. “That would solve the problem for our urban community — if we have that kind of financial support.”

Commissioner Rosenworcel is doing what she can to convince her colleagues of the urgency of the moment. “Since classrooms have now migrated to students’ homes, we need to look at that statute and apply it to today’s situation,” she said. “I think the FCC has all of the authority it needs right now to be creative and use funds to connect students but if I can’t convince my colleagues, I hope we see some of this legislation [HEROES Act] passed into law sooner than later.”