Prepared by John Cradler, CUE Legislation and Policy Consultant

Current Legislation Priority: The current focus of legislation related to educational technology is on Federal funding to address closing the digital divide and related homework gap by increasing home access to broadband internet–especially in underserved and rural homes. This major surge in interest is because of school closures related to Coronavirus. It is unfortunate that it takes a major world-wide disaster to motivate action to be take on an important communications service determined to be of great importance for the past 25 years.

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 students, 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.
  • 35% of teens say they at least ‘sometimes’ rely on their cellphone to finish their homework, according to Pew. However, this jumps to 45% of teens living in households that earn less than $30,000 a year.
  • 12% of teens say they at least sometimes use public wi-fi to complete homework assignments because they don’t have a connection at home.

Proposed New Federal Stimulus Legislation Includes Broadband Provisions:  Senators. Edward Markey, D-Mass., Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, recently joined 31 of their colleagues in a letter to House and Senate leadership requesting funding for all K-12 students to have adequate home internet connectivity if their schools close due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. The senators expressed their disappointment with the lack of such funding in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that recently passed Congress, despite their repeated call for resources dedicated to distance learning. The lawmakers urged leadership in both chambers of Congress to support $2 billion in E-Rate funding in the next coronavirus relief package for students to learn at home.

On April 2, 2020, a coalition of Democrats comprising House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., and key committee chairs Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., and Frank Pallone, D-N.J., on, recently announced plans to center a new stimulus package around infrastructure, and heavily featured broadband in the discussion. The proposed stimulus package would be the fourth in a series of government packages that aim to repair and prepare the country in the wake of the Coronavirus outbreak.  Congressman Pallone, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, advocated for a proposed package to help close the digital divide. He referenced a study released by the FCC that determined the government would need to spend $86 billion dollars over the course of five years to achieve 100 percent connectivity in the United States.

Congressman DeFazio called this new stimulus package a perfect opportunity to vanquish the digital divide. He said school children in his district and hometown of Springfield, Oregon, would sit in front of school to access the school’s wi-fi to complete their homework even after they get laptops from Bill and Melinda Gates. He mentioned that some Republicans have signaled support for an infrastructure stimulus and that President Trump expressed his willingness to spend as much as $2 trillion on an infrastructure stimulus.

Overhaul of E-Rate to Fund Remote Learning. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is in talks with congressional leaders to change the E-rate program to allow it provide funding for in-home connectivity and device use away from school.

As school districts continue to close across the country, policymakers are discussing how best to quickly disperse federal money for remote learning through the E-rate, a major program overseen by the FCC that provides support for improved Internet access in schools and libraries. The E-rate program is currently capped at $4.15 billion annually. The fund has about $1.5 billion that is unused for this funding year, which ends on June 30.

Currently, language in the FCC Act prohibits the agency from using E-Rate for students’ home use of wireless devices and services, directing E-Rate funds to be provided for support of connectivity in classrooms only, according to the office of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. Based on this language, the FCC cannot subsidize home use of connectivity services and devices without authorization from Congress, said a spokesperson for Pai.

A group of 18 senators and FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, are calling on FCC Chairman Pai to use emergency powers to quickly change FCC rules to authorize E-Rate funding to foster students’ use of devices and connection services at home.  Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said while she would welcome congressional guidance, the FCC should speed up the process by implementing an emergency rule change to loan mobile hotspots to students, particularly those who lack adequate Internet connection.

Consortium on School Networking (CoSN) Advocacy for E-rate funding to homes. CoSN has just launched a strategy for individuals and organizations to contact their Congressional Representatives and email a letter asking for support to allow E-rate funding to be expanded for in-home connectivity.

“Dedicated additional E-rate funding is needed to ensure that schools can quickly provide all unconnected students with the hardware, software, and connections needed to deliver online learning. Please help us quickly address this emergency need so that our students, especially our most vulnerable learners, do no fall behind academically as a result of prolonged school closures.”

If you would like to send a letter to your Congressional Representative(s), go to the CoSN site for details providing: names of your Congressional Representatives based on your zip code, a pre-written letter, and an automated process for you to send your support to your representative. Click on this url to contribute your support :  http://action.cosn.org/ctas/all-students-displaced-by-pandemic-need-access-to

Proposed Federal Legislation: Congress is now actively addressing the homework gap with new Senate and House bills summarized as follows:

H.R.5243 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. 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.

The Assistant Secretary shall prioritize grants to eligible institutions that prepare a mobile hotspot program plan targeting the highest number of low-income students. Congresswoman Meng states that:

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.

Comments: 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 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 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 that will ensure that all students in the United States have access to broadband internet access service at home, including purchasing any necessary equipment for that purpose and providing those students with hotspot devices.

Comments. The bill lists only 12 million 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 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. S.3362 is endorced by: AFT, NEA, the National Rural Education Association, and several States and County education entities.

S.1167, by U.S. Senator Patty Murray (WA), the Digital Equity Act of 2019  This bill proposes to authorize more than $1 billion in Federal grant funding over the next five years to support digital inclusion programs throughout U.S. states and territories for (1) promoting digital equity, (2) supporting digital inclusion activities, and (3) building capacity for state-led efforts to increase adoption of broadband by their residents. This bill has 16 co-authors at this time.

H.R. 4486, by Representative Jerry McNerney (CA-9), This is a companion bill to S.1167, with two cosponsors at this time. It has been referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The bill would create two major Federal grant programs, operated by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), to promote digital equity nationwide.

The proposed funding for S.1167 and H.R.4486 is $125 million per year for five years — a total of up to $1.25 billion and are referred as the Digital Equity Act. H.R. 4486 would be carried out through state governments, with funding allocated by formula, and would incorporate state-by-state digital equity planning followed by implementation grants to qualifying programs. S.1167 would be an annual national competitive grant program, run by the NTIA, to support digital equity projects undertaken by individual groups, coalitions, and/or communities of interest anywhere in the U.S. It is expected that these two bills would be combined as they move through the legislative process along with several amendments

General Comments and Suggestions: Comments about these bills generally addresses strong support for  funding home access to broadband internet but do not address the need for many other and basic resources and services that need to be considered which include:

  1. State, regional, and local planning and coordination to apply for and distribute needed connectivity and technology resources, prioritizing technologically underserved areas.
  2. Teacher professional development on how to prepare and deliver online instruction
  3. A program to review current and emerging online programs for alignment to curriculum standards.
  4. Staff at the State, county, and district, levels to facilitate access to, and delivery of professional development
  5. Technical support to enable connectivity, procure and install technology, and ongoing maintenance
  6. Access to online instructional resources and information that support district/State curriculum
  7. Resources to inform and educate parents, and others on how to support home-accessed online instruction
  8. Training and ongoing support to enable student to use access and use the technology
  9. Staff and guidelines for documenting the access to, use of, and impact of online instruction.

If Federal legislation is passed and signed by the President, the State should consider legislation to authorize funding to address the needed support for these services to ensure that the Homework Gap can be fully implemented as intended by the bills summarized in this Update. Also, the U.S. 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 bills move through the various committees with input from various associations and members of the House and Senate. We should support the intent of these bills but work with other associations to include ISTE, CoSN, and NEA to suggest amendments as needed. 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 online instruction. We will track and report on the progress of each of these bills and suggest advocacy actions to the LAC.

The CUE Legislation and Advocacy Consultant is in communications with offices of House Members, Nancy Pelosi and Anna Eshoo regarding actions CUE can take to support the bills and related Stimulus funding proposals. We will also collaborate with CoSN, SETDA, and ISTE, in terms of strategy with joint actions for supporting specific bills as needed.

Mercedes Maskalik

About Mercedes Maskalik