The FCC Can Help End Digital Segregation Now by Expanding E-Rate

Feb 25, 2021 12:00:00 AM


Exactly 60 years ago, James Baldwin wrote in Esquire magazine that "Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor." Recent statements from some major internet providers across the country prove just how right he was. 

In a time when families must use digital platforms to ensure their children are educated, proposed internet price hikes and data limits are, at best, a thoughtless measure that will inadvertently harm those most in need. At worst, they are a cynical move to extract more money from those who have no choice. In either reality, poor students lose. To ensure the success of all students, our leaders in Washington must address digital segregation as an issue of resource equity. 

We have an urgent opportunity to counteract years of inequity and inaction. We can drastically expand access to the internet now. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is currently considering whether or not to expand the $4 billion E-Rate program to support remote learning during the pandemic. For students and families across the country who’ve struggled to access learning during this tumultuous year, this is exactly the type of action needed to begin leveling our country’s stark digital inequities. 

We are almost a year into the COVID-19 pandemic and another school year into a largely digital school experience for hundreds of thousands of students nationally. [pullquote]The failures of our public education system to deliver basic internet access and support to learn at home—failures that keep poor students shut out of equitable access to a good education— compound with each subsequent day, week, and month of online learning.[/pullquote]

Education leaders, teachers, families, and advocates have mulled over the issue for months. We have seen firsthand how digital segregation has affected families in Los Angeles. We know that if this is the reality in the nation’s second largest school district, there are thousands of districts across the country in even more dire circumstances. Study after study reiterates the scores of anecdotal evidence we’ve heard from every part of the United States. 

Many low-income families are making unsustainable financial sacrifices to support their students’ education. Others have children learning on cell phones or using public Wi-Fi to complete schoolwork. For example, in Los Angeles, only about 50% of the lowest-income households have a desktop or laptop computer and subscribe to residential broadband. Nationally, just 63% of students from low-income households have a device they can use and internet access. Compare that to about 90% of students in the highest-income households. The contrast is staggering. 

Furthermore, [pullquote]K-12 students who are Black and Latino are significantly less likely to live in households equipped with technology resources for distance learning.[/pullquote] Thus, the socio-economic inequities are, once again, compounded by race. Moreover, many models of remote instruction rely in part on parents as educators, but many parents -- especially low-income parents -- work outside the home. These problems are not limited to just large urban cities, but reverberate in rural and suburban areas throughout the country.  

Digital Segregation

With months of this knowledge under our belt, it is not enough to continue addressing the so-called “digital divide.” Many parent and student advocates have begun referring to these ongoing inequities as digital segregation. By acknowledging the segregation, we begin to remove the stigma that has been placed on the shoulders of low-income families and parents. 

When we understand this phenomenon as digital segregation, we can acknowledge that the onus to solve the issue rests squarely with those of us in the public and private sectors with the means to transform these unjust systems. 

The internet must be treated as a basic life necessity and regulated as such. The FCC’s outgoing chairman, Ajit Pai, has argued that expanding the E-Rate program to benefit homes and families is outside of the FCC’s sphere of influence. While it’s true the Communications Act limits E-Rate to delivering internet to classrooms and schools, [pullquote]in our current reality, the bounds of the American classroom have shifted.[/pullquote]

If students must learn at home over the internet, our government must meet their needs there.

But meeting students’ internet needs doesn’t stop with the FCC. The companies that provide internet to families--Internet Service Providers (ISPs)--should also be held accountable to deliver for young learners. They should partner with public schools to automatically enroll families in free and low-cost internet access based on free and reduced-price lunch status. For those families of K-12 students seeking free or low-cost internet, ISPs should also be required to waive eligibility requirements based on past financial history or lack of a social security number. [pullquote position="right"]We call on the FCC to join us in pressuring business leaders and our elected officials to work together to meet these important obligations to students.[/pullquote] 

Even as the COVID vaccine rollout continues and classrooms reopen, remote learning is not going away in the foreseeable future. Many school districts will continue to use some form of hybrid instruction. Internet connectivity will remain a necessity for families across our country. If we don’t act now, to counteract digital segregation, we will lose a generation of students.

Ryan Smith

Ryan Smith is the chief external officer for The Partnership for Los Angeles Schools. Prior to joining The Partnership, Ryan was the executive director and vice president of strategic advocacy for of The Education Trust–West, an education civil rights organization dedicated to closing opportunity gaps. Ryan was also the director of education programs and policy for the United Way of Greater Los Angeles where he was responsible for the education program and policy efforts for the organization. He also coordinated Communities for Los Angeles Student Success (CLASS), a Los Angeles-based coalition of civil rights, education and community advocacy groups dedicated to closing the opportunity and achievement gaps for students-of-color and students living in poverty. Prior to his role at the United Way, Ryan worked for former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Partnership for Los Angeles Schools. In his role as Senior Director of Family and Community Engagement, Ryan led a team that improved parent involvement over 40 percent and built systems within schools to help support authentic family, school and community partnerships. Ryan founded the Parent College which so far has educated over 5,000 parents across Los Angeles on the “parent three r’s”—their rights, roles and responsibilities. Prior to joining the Partnership, Ryan was the director of the Los Angeles Parents Union and managed public affairs for Green Dot Public Schools. He has also worked as a youth organizer for Youth United for Community Action’s (YUCA) educational equity campaigns and worked as a volunteer teacher in Mexico City and Cuernavaca, Mexico. Ryan currently serves as a Annie E. Casey Foundation Children and Family Fellow. He graduated with a B.A. in Political Science from University of California, Los Angeles. He is currently a doctoral candidate in education at UCLA. Ryan has authored more than a dozen editorials and opinion pieces published in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Sacramento Bee, EdSource, and other publications. He was named by Education Week as one of the “Ten Education Leaders to Watch” nationally and also received the Families in Schools’ “Parent Engagement Leader of the Year Award”.

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