Achieving digital equity for California students
The pandemic has highlighted the essential nature of digital connectivity for learning. Federal, state and local efforts have led to dramatic improvements in digital access for students, with particularly significant advancements in access to computing devices. However, three in ten households still do not have access to a reliable internet or device, and racial / ethnic and socio-economic disparities persist. The FCC’s Emergency Connectivity Fund is helping schools purchase laptops and tablets to fill remaining device gaps. In addition, recent investments by federal and state governments provide a unique opportunity to expand broadband infrastructure, increase broadband affordability, and fill gaps in Internet access. To ensure that current and future investments are allocated effectively, efficiently and equitably, we offer the following recommendations:
Enhance current efforts to produce granular, precise and reliable broadband mapping. Mapping and data are essential to identify existing gaps, allocate investment funds, and ensure that funding meets the goal of reliable broadband for all. Yet detailed data on the number and students who have access to a reliable Internet remains limited. The FCC uses its broadband cards to allocate billions of dollars in subsidies, but it relies on data provided by Internet service providers. Businesses may report that a census block is served even if only one household has Internet service, leading to overestimating access. Using multiple data sources, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s broadband need indicators revealed substantial discrepancies between what providers say they offer and the speeds consumers say they use. At the state level, the California Public Utilities Commission broadband mapping has similar limitations. Following the Broadband DATA Act (2020), the FCC announced the creation of a Broadband Mapping Task Force to improve its data collection and mapping tools. Governor Newsom signed an executive order in 2020 asking state agencies to improve their mapping and data efforts as well. Partnerships with public agencies and private companies will be essential to produce granular, precise and reliable broadband mapping. Almost all districts have purchased devices for students, and schools could play an important role in collecting data on actual usage and speed. For example, the state can develop a speed test app that schools can run on their devices.
Provide annual reports on student internet access. The continued reliance on the Internet for teaching and learning requires reliable data to guide the continued efforts of state and local communities. Nationally, two in ten districts have adopted or plan to adopt a virtual option, and more than 80% of the 200 largest districts were offering some kind of virtual offering in fall 2021 (Schwartz et al. 2020; Burbio 2021). In many districts, digital tools and platforms that teachers have relied on during distance education, such as Google Classroom, will continue to be used after the pandemic emerges (St George et al. 2021). The state may require schools and districts to report broadband access, both at school and at home, as part of its data collection efforts. For example, this information could be included in local control accountability plans or school accountability report cards.
Assess the need for ongoing grants. Almost 40% of low-income students still do not have reliable access to the Internet. Recent laws, including the Emergency Broadband Provision and the Emergency Connectivity Fund, have provided much needed help; However, these programs are temporary and it is not clear whether low income families will continue to access broadband after the subsidies expire. Congress is currently discussing an infrastructure package that could extend the temporary programs. The average cost of broadband is $ 68 per month in the United States, which is higher than in most OECD countries (New America 2020). If and when federal grants expire, the state should commission a study to examine how existing grant programs have been implemented, assess the need for ongoing grants, and develop recommendations for the best way forward (e.g. Should subsidy programs continue after Benefits and the Emergency Connectivity Fund expire? Should the state increase benefits from its existing subsidy program?).
Coordinated efforts among federal, state and local stakeholders will be essential. Even before the pandemic, many local communities across the state had set out to bridge the digital divide. Therefore, they are now ready to capitalize on recent federal and state investments to scale up and sustain their long-term programs. To take advantage of the experience and knowledge developed in these local efforts, the state and philanthropic community could design an innovation network to amplify these programs so that they can be scaled up to serve larger populations across the country. ‘State. Implementation and coordinated efforts among various stakeholders, including service providers, municipalities, public and private agencies, philanthropic organizations and community organizations, will be needed to leverage federal and state funding, scale up innovations efficient and expand broadband infrastructure.
The importance of digital connectivity for student learning is more evident than ever. While unprecedented investments in accessibility and broadband infrastructure during the pandemic have contributed to dramatic improvements in digital access for California students, progress appears to have stalled and deep equity gaps remain, especially for low-income households. Much remains to be done to ensure that all students have reliable digital access to enable them to fully participate in their education.