The FCC has done big things for public education before. It’s time again

Internet access is a basic right for students during online learning—and always
By: | April 28, 2020
(Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash)(Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash)
Caprice Young is national superintendent for Learn4Life.

Caprice Young is national superintendent for Learn4Life.

In the 1920s, radio was an essential communications device—and free. In the 1950s, television became an important means of communication—and free. In 2020, why isn’t the internet free when we need it to educate our children? Time for the Federal Communications Commission to step in. Broadband should be free for students.

Students who don’t have broadband access are severely disadvantaged. The next 18 months will likely require sporadic sheltering in place and remote learning solutions. Schools, parents and communities are struggling to pay for a few months of internet access, but we need to recognize that learning must take place at school and online at home—forever.

Read: 208 free K-12 resources during coronavirus pandemic

Providing anytime, anywhere broadband access

That means every student should have access to broadband anytime, anywhere to level the playing field and help close the achievement gap. Academic success means the ability of students to do homework and to explore the world online.

When schools closed, Learn4Life quickly distributed thousands of laptops to our students. These days, laptops are under $200—less than the cost of textbooks for one semester of high school. So the return on investment is easy to justify, but the big issue is lack of internet access.

Read: Digital divide drives new broadband expansion efforts

In the schools I lead, 85% of our 23,000 at-risk students don’t have internet access at home. This is more than a significant competitive disadvantage. Their families don’t have access to the basic lifesaving information we access through the internet on a regular basis, such as public data about COVID-19 and where to get tested; solutions for how to create your own masks; and community resources for food, medical care and shelter.

But the plain truth is that our modern lives require ubiquitous Wi-Fi—like clean air and water, shelter, and basic nutrition—and students should not be penalized based on their parents’ ability to pay.

Basic civic and economic information that anyone needs to function in the modern world isn’t part of their world. They don’t have access to news, candidate information, free job training or online employment applications. Families without internet access are shut out.

Learn4Life is struggling to find the 19,000 hot spots we need—and the telecom companies are charging us for devices that used to be free. Prior to COVID-19, my telecommunication providers would give me a hot spot to access Wi-Fi if I signed up for a yearlong $10 per month Wi-Fi contract. Now, Wi-Fi hot spots are hard to find. The advertised two months of free Wi-Fi requires a yearlong contract at $35 per month, making Wi-Fi more expensive than laptops. Getting broadband consumes the resources needed for teachers; counseling; academic intervention; and eventually, school cleanliness and nurses.

Read: Digital equity: Solving the technology issue through collaboration

Returning to school

When we return after stay-at-home orders end, we will likely have a year of sporadic remote learning requirements when outbreaks need to be addressed. But the plain truth is that our modern lives require ubiquitous Wi-Fi—like clean air and water, shelter, and basic nutrition—and students should not be penalized based on their parents’ ability to pay. It is time that we recognize that students of all economic backgrounds need to be connected.

Read: How online learning is unmasking disparities

FCC requirements to support public access to telecommunications has long been part of U.S. policy. Radio and television were supported by advertising, but public access to cable broadcasting was an active part of the last century. Just in the past decade, E-rate became a vital program that enabled every school in the country to get connected to the internet. Policymakers knew that the proper functioning of our schools demanded this basic infrastructure.

The COVID-19 crisis has done a simple favor in forcing us to recognize that student learning outside of the classroom is just as important as inside. Eliminating this necessary barrier to 21st-century learning is a practical and simple way to help reduce inequity in our education system and build success in all students.

Broadband should be free to students always.

Caprice Young is national superintendent for Learn4Life, a nonprofit network of schools that serves at-risk high school students and former dropouts through a flexible and personalized learning model.

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