Symposium | America Connected

Ending the Homework Gap

By Jessica Rosenworcel

Tagged broadbandChildrenEducationequalitySchoolsThe Internet

At the start of this school year, a picture of two young girls sitting outside a Taco Bell swept across the Internet. They were not headed to the restaurant for lunch. Instead, they were seen cross-legged on the ground with laptops on their knees, trying to catch a free WiFi signal to do their schoolwork. They had nowhere else to go to get online and attend their remote class.

Images often go viral because they touch a nerve. This was no exception; it was heart wrenching to see what these students in Salinas, California had to do to keep up in school. But they’re hardly unique. There are kids like them in communities across the country. They live in rural areas, urban areas, and everywhere in-between. This especially cruel part of the digital divide is known as the “homework gap.” It is time for a national plan to address it.

Identifying the Homework Gap

The days when schoolwork required only paper and pencil are long gone. Now, seven in ten teachers assign homework that requires access to the Internet. Yet data from the Federal Communications Commission—where I work—suggest that one in three households do not subscribe to broadband. The “homework gap” is where those numbers overlap.

According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, the homework gap affects nearly 17 million students nationwide. It has an outsized impact on students of color, with onein three Black, Latino, and American Indian/Alaska Native households with students at home lacking high-speed Internet service. A study from Common Sense Media found that between 15 and 16 million kids fall into the homework gap, and as many as 10 percent of public school teachers lack adequate broadband at home.

However you size it, the homework gap is a problem. Moreover, it’s one that has become painfully apparent during the ongoing pandemic. A year ago, when we first discovered that the novel coronavirus had reached our shores, we were told to empty public spaces, hunker down at home, and move as much of our lives online as possible. Broadband access quickly became a necessity as much of work, health care, and education pivoted from in-person to virtual settings.

But what happens when not everyone has broadband at home? Statistics from the FCC collected during the last Administration suggest that 14.5 million people in the United States lack access to high-speed service at home. Yet these numbers do not fully reflect the state of the digital divide. That’s because they are dependent on a methodology with serious flaws. If there is a single subscriber in a census block, the agency presumes broadband is available throughout. This systematically overstates service. As a result, other recent estimates have suggested the actual number is as high as 42 million. Moreover, official statistics do not capture the number of households that may have access to high-speed service but choose not to subscribe, often due to cost. This may represent a significant portion of the one in three households across the country that do not have service.

In pre-pandemic days, many of the students who struggled without reliable broadband at home still had other options, like sticking around after class or heading to the public library. But with classes themselves moved online during the pandemic, the homework gap quickly became a full-time learning and education gap.

In its the early days, more than 50 million students across the country were sent home from school and told to attend class online. Remote learning continues for significant swathes of students. In many cities, schools are only partially open, with students alternating between online and in-person education. In areas with virus spikes and overwhelmed health-care systems, schools may once again shut down and revert to virtual classes. For students without reliable and consistent Internet access at home, this presents a serious challenge.

So many of these kids have gone to great lengths just to get online for school. These are the kids we see sit in front of fast food restaurants in California with school-issued laptops. We saw them linger near WiFi-equipped school buses in South Carolina, after the state sent hundreds of these buses out on the road to park in low-income neighborhoods so that students could connect. In fact, during the pandemic, WiFi parking lots became a thing nationwide, with The New York Times reporting on their use everywhere from Kansas to California. One student in Minnesota recounted to a local broadcaster that, while her school was closed, she still drove there every morning in order to park outside and use the free signal for remote learning.

There is evidence many of these students simply did not regularly attend school when classes were held virtually. At the start of this school year in Detroit, school attendance fell by over 10 percent. Similar levels of decline have been reported in New Jersey. Meanwhile, when remote learning started early in the pandemic, more than 15,000 high school students in Los Angeles failed to show up, and more than 40,000 had no daily contact with their teachers.

Other students have wrestled with the homework gap in different ways. During a virtual gathering with Congressman Peter Welch, a middle-school teacher from northern Vermont described how, in the early days of the pandemic, she was out and about and ran into the mother of one of her students. The student had not been present in online class during the last week or so. The mother was clearly aware because right after she exchanged the usual pleasantries with this teacher, she blurted out an explanation: “The Internet ran out.” Like so many others, they had limited, data-capped Internet access. That meant that in their household they were likely stuck allocating bits of smartphone service to classes, work, health care, and other emergencies. And, when it came to school, the math sometimes just didn’t add up.

Putting the Homework Gap in Context

This lack of student connectivity at home may seem like a recent problem borne of the digital age. But it has historical antecedents in the movement to ensure all students have access to textbooks that they can use both in school and at home. It should, therefore, be viewed as part of a broader dialogue about what is required for an adequate and equitable education.

As the Supreme Court observed in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education, “Education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments” and “it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.” In the decades following this decision, courts across the country have grappled with just what educational adequacy and equity mean.

Some later decisions offer historical context in which to view the homework gap. In a 1974 decision citing Brown, the West Virginia Supreme Court found that textbooks must be provided free of charge to students in state, observing that to do otherwise would be a denial of their equal protection rights under the Constitution. Nearly two decades later in 1993, an Alabama circuit court took up textbook availability as part of a broader case about the adequacy of the state’s educational system. As part of its opinion, the court noted that the state had failed to provide textbooks to all students. In doing so, the court pointed to the fact that the governor had admitted that students are at an educational disadvantage if they cannot take schoolbooks home.

In 2000 in California, the same issues arose in a class action lawsuit concerning the provision of equal access to instructional material and adequate facilities for public school students. In response, legislation known as the “Williams Settlement” was enacted, which required standards-based textbooks be made available for all students “in class and to take home.” Building on this history, during the pandemic, the California Department of Education issued “Distance Learning Considerations” informed by this standard while also noting that the state constitution prohibits local education agencies from requiring students to purchase Internet access or devices. Accordingly, the state directed local education authorities to fashion pandemic learning plans taking into consideration how students will be able to engage in “e-learning” and whether or not students have Internet access outside of school.

Because so many educational materials required for class now require online access, the homework gap may be viewed as a descendant of the movement to provide equitable education via access to textbooks. That means that even as in-class instruction resumes, work to address the homework gap must continue. Policymakers need to move beyond the kind of directives sent from California that acknowledge the problem to efforts that actually solve it. In other words, we need a nationwide plan to help ensure every student has home Internet access.

Closing the Homework Gap

A national plan to fix the homework gap starts with a national commitment to end the digital divide. Like with electricity before it, the United States must commit to making broadband service available to everyone, everywhere in the country. These efforts need to include both measures to spur deployment in areas without infrastructure and initiatives to support adoption in communities where broadband may be available, but where few households subscribe.

However, the homework gap is a distinct subset of this broader problem, and it deserves its own targeted set of solutions. Reaching the 15 to 17 million students who lack Internet may sound daunting, but there are things we can do right now to make a meaningful difference.

First, we need to recognize that with so much learning activity migrating online, educational equity requires addressing the homework gap. While this pandemic has brought more attention to the issue of home connectivity, we cannot let interest in this subject fade when in-person learning returns. Schooling, like everything else, has been changed by this pandemic. We can expect that the range of educational activities that take place online will increase and that the materials that are available only digitally will multiply. Without taking action to address the homework gap, we will see increased disparities between students with access to broadband at home and those without, compounding other systemic disparities that can harm educational outcomes. 

Second, we need to quantify the homework gap at the local level in order to target solutions effectively. Even before the pandemic began, forward-thinking state and local authorities were engaged in a range of efforts to count the extent of broadband service in their communities, with a specific focus on households with school-aged children. Several years ago in North Carolina, the state government, in partnership with the Friday Institute at North Carolina State University, developed what may be the first statewide effort to quantify the extent of the homework gap. More recently, the Virginia Department of Education undertook a similar effort to bring state educational leaders together to draw attention to the homework gap. Likewise, in Hartford, Connecticut, civic leaders came together to study the problem and issued a report that included surveys of residents about student Internet access undertaken during neighborhood meetings.

More informal efforts like these are undoubtedly happening in schools and school districts across the country. Some may have been undertaken in response to pandemic directives like the one in California. But they would benefit from some standardization. After all, simply asking if service is available at a student’s home may not yield the information needed. It may, for instance, be useful to know if it entails fixed or mobile service, whether or not it has a data cap, and if it offers upload speeds that are adequate for synchronous video that may be needed for full participation in online class.

Third, we need to survey state and local initiatives to solve the homework gap and replicate those that have been successful. In Nevada, for instance, a partnership between the state Department of Education, school districts, and community groups resulted in tens of thousands of phone calls and door-to-door surveys to help ensure the state’s students could get online and prepare for class. In Connecticut, after local school districts reported their needs, the state used a mix of support from a non-profit organization and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to provide an at-home Internet connection and computer to students who might otherwise go without.

In Chicago, the mayor announced an effort known as “Chicago Connected” to provide free Internet service to 100,000 students over the next four years at no cost to their households. The program will connect them at home with service from two broadband companies present in the city, an effort supported, in part, by philanthropic funding. But cities are not the only places where this kind of broadband blanket initiative may work. There is evidence it may also be viable in rural areas, like in North Dakota, where the presence of a state fiber-optic network co-operative has helped supply connections to students in remote areas who require Internet service for online instruction.

Fourth and finally, we need to modernize the E-Rate program to address the homework gap. E-Rate is the nation’s largest educational technology program. Created by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, it helps connect schools and libraries across the country to high-speed Internet service. At present, more than $4 billion in annual support is available on a sliding scale, with more funding available for institutions in rural areas and those that serve higher numbers of students eligible for free and reduced-lunch programs. But it needs an update that recognizes that the learning envisioned when the program was created now takes place outside of the building.

These modes of online instruction are likely to continue even after we have fully reopened school buildings. Moreover, the kind of regular school assignments that require Internet access are only going to expand as the broader digitization of civic and commercial life continues. For these reasons, the E-rate program deserves a refresh. The support the program provides for classroom connectivity should be reassessed so that that it can include initiatives to ensure that students without broadband at home can fully participate in online class and complete routine homework assignments that require Internet access. This could start by ensuring the program supports school libraries loaning out wireless hotspots to students who may need them.  It could include providing support to connect school buses with WiFi, which during normal times, can turn a bus ride home into connected time for schoolwork. This would be especially valuable in rural areas where students spend hours on the bus heading to and from school. In addition, it could consider how to expand support for broadband blanket programs for students like those developed in Chicago and North Dakota so they may be possible in more communities or at greater scale. In short, we should be open to any creative ideas that can give modern meaning to the E-Rate program.

The single most important thing is that we get started now. We don’t need another pandemic or viral picture to galvanize us toward change. We have all the evidence we need that addressing the homework gap needs to be a national priority so that no child is left offline.

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Jessica Rosenworcel is the acting chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission.

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