Prepared by John Cradler, CUE Legislation and Policy Consultant

According to FCC Commissioner, Jessica Rosenworcel, Living with the Coronavirus is going to reveal hard truths about the digital divide. This is especially true for students, who are being told in record numbers to use online for education at home due to Coronavirus related school closures. It’s time for a nationwide plan to ensure they can all get there. Like so much else, the internet has changed education. The days when out-of-school learning required only paper and pencil are long gone. Today, students live their lives online and use internet-based resources for so much of modern education. About 7 in 10 teachers assign homework that requires broadband access, but nearly 1 in 3 households don’t have it.

The “homework gap” affects 12 million U.S. school-age kids, according to the Senate Joint Economic Committee. Students with less access to digital tools are at risk of falling behind their peers who are more connected.

  • 15% of households with school-age children don’t have a high-speed connection at home, per Pew Research Center. That number is higher among low-income households, one-third of which lack broadband access.
  • 35% of teens say they at least ‘sometimes’ rely on their cellphone to finish their homework, according to Pew. However, 45% of teens living in households that earn less than $30,000 a year rely on cellphones.
  • 12% of teens say they at least sometimes use public WiFi to complete homework assignments because they don’t have a connection at home.

Comment by FCC Commissioner Rosenworcel:  It’s the most important issue of digital equality we face. It’s not about indulgent surfing online, it’s about teaching students how to use resources online to supplement how they find information and understand the world. We’re going to harm their ability to perform jobs, the majority of which now require digital skills. She also states, the FCC should use its power in this emergency to provide schools with Wi-Fi hotspots to loan out to students who lack reliable internet access at home. It has the authority to do so under the Telecommunications Act.

Congress is now actively addressing the homework gap with two new bills, one in the Senate legislation introduced by Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and the other in the House by Representative Grace Meng (D-NY). These efforts could include legislation to expand student access to devices as well as access to the internet.

Following is a brief summary of each of these two bills followed by comments about comments based on input from the CDE Technology Consultant, LAC Chair, and CUE Legislative Consultant.

H.R.5243 116th Congress (2019-2020): Closing the Homework Gap Through Mobile Hotspots Act | Congress.gov | Library of Congress.  A bill by Congresswoman Meng, to amend the National Telecommunications and Information Administration Organization Act to establish a mobile hotspot grant program, and for other purposes. Introduced in House (11/21/2019) and now has 26 House Co-sponsors.

Bill Summary: Under the program, the NTIA may provide grants to eligible institutions (e.g., elementary and secondary schools, universities, Indian Tribes, or libraries) to facilitate a mobile hotspot program that provides students with a portable hotspot device for connecting to the internet. The NTIA shall prioritize institutions that will provide hotspots to the highest number of low-income students and, to the extent practicable, shall disburse at least 5% of grant funds to Indian Tribes and 5% to U.S. territories and the District of Columbia.  According to the bill at this time, an eligible institution may not receive more than 2 percent of the total sum appropriated for a fiscal year to carry out this section.

The Assistant Secretary may provide grants to eligible institutions under the program to schools and libraries eligible to receive a grant by submitting an application at such time containing such information as the Assistant Secretary may require. A grant shall be used to facilitate a mobile hotspot program that provides a hotspot device to an enrolled student, or the family or guardian of such enrolled student, and such hotspot device and shall be portable, not contain a data limitation; and comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998. The Assistant Secretary shall prioritize grants to eligible institutions that prepare a mobile hotspot program plan targeting the highest number of low-income students.

Statement by Congresswoman Meng about the bill: We cannot allow this to go on. My bill is simple and does not require investing funds in developing new technologies to close the “homework gap;” instead, it builds on and expands existing infrastructures. Mobile hotspot devices already exist, and with my bill, we can get them to more students who need them. Essentially, students can “check-out” these mobile hotspots from their schools or local libraries – just as they do for books. I encourage all my colleagues in the House to support my bill – and help break down barriers to education.

Comments about HR 5243. This bill proposes a grant program but does not define the grant process in terms of competitive vs. entitlement and the process for applying for the grants.  The bill does not specify which Federal Office would administer the program to be known as the ‘Mobile Hotspot Grant Program’ to administer the grants. Considering that CA has 3.4m Economically disadvantaged from Pre-K, K12 and Higher education students $100,000,000 does not seem sufficient. The bill doesn’t address devices or training nor the fact that many Economically disadvantaged students (tribe specifically) live in areas with no mobile broadband coverage so that would need to be addressed.

 S.3362 – 116th Congress (2019-2020): Homework Gap Trust Fund Act | Congress.gov | Library of Congress  This bill requires the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to use a portion of the proceeds from the auction of the C-band to fund measures to provide students with access to the internet at home, and for other purposes. The would establish in the Treasury of the United States a fund to be known as the “Homework Gap Trust Fund” which shall be administered by the FCC to provide funding for measures that help to close the digital divide; and promote digital equality with respect to school-aged children.

Not less than $2,000,000,000 and not more than $4,000,000,000 of the proceeds received from systems of competitive bidding conducted with respect to the use of the C-band shall be deposited in the Homework Gap Trust Fund ensure that all students in the United States have access to broadband internet access service at home, including by purchasing any necessary equipment for that purpose and providing those students with hotspot devices.

Comments about S.3362. The bill lists only 12million students who are unconnected. CA has 3.4m economically disadvantaged students. It does not address areas where there is no mobile broadband for checked out devices to connect to. It does not address the training of students/staff on effective use.  It does include a reference to devices, not just hotspots and it tracks and is required to report usage data. The bill will need to include additional details on the process for distributing the funding as well as the application process and criteria for approving funds. S.3362 is endorsed by: AFT, NEA, the National Rural Education Association, and several States and County education entities.

General Comments and Suggestions: The comments generally address technical and funding issues. However, this legislation or related legislation needs to address the well-known, research-based information on the effective delivery and impact online distance education. This legislation addresses the need for funding home access to the internet but does not address the need for many other and basic resources and factors that need to be considered when funding online teaching and learning.Teacher professional development on effective delivery of online instruction

  1. Become familiar with the available resources and guidelines on effective delivery of online teaching and learning available from State and National professional education associations. and others.
  2. Staff at the district and county level to facilitate access to, and delivery of professional development
  3. Technical support to assist for procurement, installing technology, and maintenance of connectivity and equipment
  4. Administrative leadership to support planning and documenting impact of the online instructional program
  5. Access to web-enabled instructional resources that align with the district/State curriculum
  6. Training and enabling student capability to use the technology
  7. Providing incentives for online instruction to replace classroom strategies
  8. Capacity to monitor and document level of use of online instruction
  9. Providing a process for informing and educating parents, family members, and/or others on how to support home instruction augmented with online instruction
  10. Scheduling time and location for online instruction for both teachers and students
  11. State, regional, and local management and coordination of the online learning system to include assistance on how to apply for and distribute resources to the most needed.

If this Federal legislation is passed and signed by the President, the State should consider legislation to authorize funding to address the needed support these services to ensure that the Homework Gap can be fully implemented as intended by S3363 and HR5243. Also, the Secretary of Education should re-consider cutting the 160 million that was intended for professional development and earmark these and other funding to support the State and local needs to effectively implement the online teaching and learning needed to significantly reduce the Homework Gap.

Next Steps: These and other issues will be addressed in comments collected so far, as these two bills move through the various committees with input from various associations and members of the House and Senate. I believe we should strongly support the intent of these bills but work with other associations to include ISTE, CoSN, and NEA to suggest amendments. Keep in mind that these bills have recently been introduced and that there will be opportunities for amendments. Also, this might be a good time to revisit legislation, at the State and Federal level, to fund the professional development and support services needed for both teachers and administrators to effectively and integrate technology in to teaching and learning. We will track and report on the progress of each of these bills and suggest advocacy actions to the LAC.

Mercedes Maskalik

About Mercedes Maskalik