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Education Technology

Closing the Nation’s Homework Gap

Photo: Courtesy of Jessica Lewis

JoAnn Bartoletti

Chief Executive Officer, National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP)

An assistant principal recently visited a student’s home in a migrant farm community at the edge of the Northern California district. The student had not logged on to online classes in several days and was at risk of failing. What he found was astonishing.

The student had propped the school-provided MiFi device atop a ladder in the middle of their small kitchen, the only location that would draw any internet signal. The weak signal would allow for only one connection at a time, which the student deferred to his younger sisters who, he believed, would need the education more than he did since he was hopeful to get a job as a house painter.

Lack of equity

This scenario repeats in rural and low-income communities across our nation each day as structural inequities layer upon a lack of broadband access at home. In some remote areas, the broadband infrastructure simply doesn’t exist. And in more populous areas, low-income families simply can’t afford to access the broadband internet that surrounds them. 

A 2017 report from the National Center for Education Statistics revealed that 14 percent of children had no internet access at home, a crisis that hits Black and Latino students (20 percent) and Native American students (37 percent) particularly hard.

This “homework gap” has real and devastating effects, especially during a pandemic. Federal E-rate funding has connected nearly all public schools in the country, but many students would rely on publicly available WiFi at coffee shops and fast food restaurants to complete assignments. Those options have all but evaporated under pandemic conditions, further isolating students who already struggle to keep up with more resourced peers. 

The effects manifest in lower achievement and lower college-going rates, and immeasurable volumes of unfulfilled potential. That hurts all of us.

Closing the gap

As is too often the case, schools have assumed the burden where public policy has fallen short. As schools closed in March, districts rallied to get devices in the hands of all students who needed them. They distributed personal WiFi devices, lobbied mobile providers to install more hotspots in remote areas, and parked WiFi-enabled school buses all over their districts. But these patchwork efforts take us only so far. 

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has the power to dedicate E-rate funds to closing the homework gap, much like they did with school broadband. What the FCC lacks, however, is the political will to make that happen. 

The National Association of Secondary School Principals and numerous counterpart organizations have long advocated for expanding the use of E-rate funds, and during the pandemic, we have encouraged Congress to allocate $4 billion for home broadband access in a relief package.

Broadband is no longer a luxury, and if we are serious about our national commitment to teaching all students to high standards, we must create the conditions under which that commitment can be met.

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