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CLOSING THE “HOMEWORK GAP”: New Federal Initiatives Aim to Increase Internet Connections in Homes of Low-Income Families

Closing this so-called “homework gap”—in which some students can access assignments and supplementary learning outside of school hours while others cannot—is the goal of two new federal efforts currently underway.

Last December, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to increase funding for the federal E-rate program by $1.5 billion annually to improve internet access in U.S. schools and libraries. The decision is expected to expand high-speed Wi-Fi access to 43.5 million additional students, more than 101,000 additional schools, and nearly 16,000 additional libraries. That’s great news, but what happens when students are not in school?

According to data cited in a report issued last fall by the Alliance for Excellent Education and the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE), students from low-income families and students of color are noticeably less likely to own computers and use the internet than their peers. Because of their students’ lack of access, teachers in high-poverty schools were more than twice as likely (56 percent versus 21 percent) to say that their students’ lack of access to technology was a challenge in their classrooms. More dramatically, only 3 percent of teachers in high-poverty schools said that their students have the digital tools necessary to complete homework assignments, compared to 52 percent of teachers in more affluent schools.

Closing this so-called “homework gap”—in which some students can access assignments and supplementary learning outside of school hours while others cannot—is the goal of two new federal efforts currently underway.

The first is through the FCC’s Lifeline program, which served more than 12 million households last year and provides monthly telephone service discounts for low-income families to assist them in finding jobs, accessing health care services, and supporting their families. On June 18, the FCC proposed modernizing the Lifeline program by better supporting twenty-first-century communications such as discounted broadband service for eligible families.

“We all agree that we have entered the broadband era—except Lifeline has not,” said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. “The transformation from a voice-based service to a broadband-based service is key to Lifeline’s future.”

In a statement, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said that 5 million out of the nation’s 29 million households with school-aged children lack access to broadband. She described how students in Citronelle, Alabama, head to McDonald’s after school to access the restaurant’s free Wi-Fi. “Students who do not have broadband at home hunker down in booths to do their homework, Rosenworcel said. “They research and write their papers with fizzy drinks and a side of fries.”

The second initiative, “ConnectHome,” was announced by President Obama on July 15 and is a joint initiative between communities, the private sector, and the federal government to expand high-speed broadband to more than 275,000 low-income households—and nearly 200,000 children. The pilot program is launching in twenty-seven cities and one tribal nation. According to a White House fact sheet, internet service providers, nonprofit organizations, and the private sector will offer broadband access, technical training, digital literacy programs, and devices for residents in assisted housing units.

“While high-speed internet access is a given, it’s assumed for millions of Americans, it’s still out of reach for too many people—especially in low-income and rural communities,” Obama said in remarks at Durant High School in Durant, Oklahoma. “More than 90 percent of households headed by a college graduate use the internet. Fewer than half of households with less than a high school education are plugged into the internet. So, in other words, the people who could benefit the most from the latest technology are the least likely to have it.”

In an article for the Hechinger Report, reporter Nichole Dobo notes that the idea of providing free or low-cost broadband to families in public housing projects is simple, but actually implementing it is much more difficult. She writes that schools have tried to provide students with internet connections at home, but often face difficulties enrolling families, maintaining the connections, and delivering internet speeds that are fast enough.

Regarding the ConnectHome initiative, Dobo writes that several of the low-cost internet-access plans listed in the announcement are “already available” and “have restrictions—such as requirements that families do not have existing service or past-due bills—that can make it difficult … to obtain a connection with the special price.”

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