Broaden the E-Rate Program to Help Students Connect at Home, Says Advocacy Group
Federal policymakers should reduce inequities by expanding the E-rate program to cover in-home internet usage, and by promoting new models of technology-driven teaching, a new report says.
The Aurora Institute, an education research and advocacy organization, this week released the recommendations, which focus on policy steps the federal government can take to shape education in the post-COVID era.
Overseen by the Federal Communications Commission, the federal E-rate program currently gives discounts to K-12 schools and libraries for internet services provided on campus.
But the report calls on policymakers to fully subsidize the cost of in-home broadband for rural, low-income, and disabled students, as well as other student populations “disproportionately affected by the homework gap” — a term that refers to the negative consequences of students not having reliable internet access away from school.
To help close the internet divide, the FCC should expand the list of eligible expenditures under E-rate to cover Wi-Fi hotspots, the report says, an expense that the federal program currently doesn’t cover.
Supporters of channeling more federal funding toward correcting the “homework gap” achieved a victory in March, when President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan into law. The stimulus measure created a $7 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund to assist with K-12 students’ remote learning needs, allowing school districts to recoup money spent on laptops, tablets, Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, and routers used off campus.
But that fund is temporary, and is reserved for work completed before June 30, 2022.
Funds for Learning, an organization that consults school districts on the E-Rate program, next week will release results from a survey of over 10 percent of total E-rate participants showing that updating the E-rate eligible services list is a much higher priority for program participants than revising the application process, according to the organization’s CEO, John Harrington.
Most comments offered in the survey center around updates to E-rate’s eligible services list, Harrington said. For example, 98 percent of respondents said cybersecurity should qualify for E-rate support, he said.
In its report, the Aurora Institute also called on policymakers to invest in an FCC and U.S. Department of Education’s research and development agenda aimed at advancing new models of technology-steered teaching and learning that show promise for improving education opportunities for all students.
“To prepare students to succeed in the 21st century, student access to technology and the internet is a requirement –and it is imperative for equity,” the report states.
“Research has shown that people of color, even when controlling for income, have fewer choices for broadband providers, are more likely to live in an unserved or monopoly area, and are less likely to have access to the latest-generation broadband technologies.”
In addition, ed-tech companies have cited bad home internet connections for K-12 students as a major impediment in delivering their products, especially as COVID has increased the rate of digital learning.
Aurora pointed to a 2016 study by Free Press, a social justice and media advocacy organization, that found “small but statistically significant differences” in the average number of internet service providers offering specific internet connection speeds in areas populated by people of different races and ethnicities.
For instance, white residents living in urban areas have, on average, 2.03 wired internet service providers who are offering speeds of 3 megabits per second and higher, compared to 1.97 ISPs for Hispanic residents, 1.98 for Blacks, and 1.85 for American Indian/Alaska Natives living in urban areas.
Moreover, white residents of urban areas had an average of 1.36 wired ISPs at 25 Mbps and higher, compared to 1.26 for urban residents who are Hispanic, 1.23 for urban Blacks, and 1.2 for urban American Indian/Alaska Natives, according to the Free Press study.
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