New report considers California’s homework gap

More than 1.6 million children across California did not have high-speed internet access at home prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report.

Closing the Homework Gap in California” — released in June by the Alliance for Excellent Education, the Small School Districts’ Association and the Linked Learning Alliance — analyzes data from the 2019 American Community Survey.

“This digital divide — also described as the ‘homework gap’— spans across California, but it disproportionately impacts children of color and those living in rural areas and in low-income families,” the report states. “Research shows that, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, middle and high school students who lack high-speed home internet access have poorer academic outcomes than their connected peers.”

The students who lacked access experienced lower grade point averages, less advanced digital skills and were not as likely to attend college. Upwards of 745,500 children were without a computer in 2019 and 8.4 percent of households did not have a computer, according to the report.

While pandemic-related school closures underscored the need for reliable, high-speed internet in homes and the expansion of distance learning fast tracked efforts by the state and local educational agencies to provide students with items like computers, tablets and WiFi hotspots, there remains progress to be made, the report states.

Districts large and small worked tirelessly to get their students connected at appropriate speeds, but “the depth of the homework gap and its disproportionate impact on rural families, low-income families, and families of color indicate that California’s schools need additional investments to ensure all children have the high-speed home internet access required for a 21st-century education.”

While the data may be dated in light of recent progress made, Latino children remain one of the groups most lacking in access to high-speed home internet and devices, and significant gaps persist by region

Geographically, the percentage of households without high-speed home internet access was much higher in non-metropolitan/rural areas than metropolitan locations at 27.5 percent compared to 18.4 percent. The same was found for the percentage of households without a computer as 11.3 percent of non-metropolitan/rural did not have one compared to 8.3 percent for metropolitan areas. LEAs in more urban counties do substantially contribute to the homework gap, however.

“Together, Los Angeles County and neighboring San Bernardino County account for more than 550,000 children without high-speed home internet access and more than 245,000 children without home computers,” the report states. “This means that about one-third of California’s children without broadband internet or devices at home live in these two counties alone.”

The state’s northern rural counties, including Del Norte, Lassen, Modoc and Humboldt, also account for more than one-third of households with children do not have high-speed internet. Meanwhile, in central Madera County, nearly four in 10 households with children do not have high-speed internet access — the highest percentage statewide. “Collectively, more than 80,000 children who live in rural California communities do not have high-speed internet access at home,” according to the report.

Progress prompted by the pandemic

The authors call on state policymakers to provide the financial and technical investments necessary to help ensure that all students have high-speed internet access and devices for schoolwork — a plea that has been at least partially answered due to the public health crisis.

The organizations who presented the report urged California lawmakers to use state funds and federal funds from the American Rescue Plan to make a one-time investment of $7 billion toward the cause, as was proposed in the revised state budget proposal.

They also voiced support for Assembly Bill 34, the Broadband for All Act of 2022, and said U.S. Congress should continue to fund the Emergency Broadband Benefit and the Emergency Connectivity Fund so the cost of high-speed internet and computers isn’t a barrier to learning.

“COVID-19 did not create California’s homework gap. However, if state lawmakers do not take steps now to close this digital divide, students without home internet access and devices will fall even further behind their connected peers long after the pandemic ends,” the report states. “California’s students deserve this investment today to ensure their future success.”

On July 20, AB 156, the broadband trailer bill, was signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom authorizing $6 billion in spending over the next three years to expand the state’s broadband fiber infrastructure and increase internet connectivity throughout communities.