Senators look to close broadband gap for schools with Digital Learning Equity Act

United States Senators Angus King (I-Maine) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.) have introduced the Digital Learning Equity Act of 2015 as a way to improve broadband access and close what they call an education gap for all students.

A key focus of the act is the recognition that access to a broadband Internet connection is an important enabler for students to get access to new personalized learning options made available through online and blended learning.

The Digital Learning Equity Act of 2015 aims to narrow this growing divide by supporting new methods to ensure students stay connected and extend access to digital learning opportunities when they leave the classroom.

The bill would authorize a program where states and school districts could pilot new approaches to increase home Internet access for students and expand digital learning resources, content, and tools. Participating schools could partner with a host of entities, such as libraries, nonprofits, businesses, or afterschool programs.

It would also direct the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences to conduct a national study of the data associated with this growing digital divide, including information on the barriers to students having Internet access at home, how educators are adjusting classroom instruction to cope with this challenge, and how a lack of home Internet access impacts student participation and engagement.

The program would focus on serving rural schools, high-need schools and low-income students.

Although many students need out-of-school access to online learning tools, the senators cite research that revealed that nearly one-third of low-income households with school-age children lack a high-speed Internet connection, which seriously limits access to educational opportunities and new learning tools essential for students to be successful. Sometimes referred to as the "homework gap," this issue disproportionately impacts minority students as well as those in rural states like Maine and West Virginia, where high-speed Internet connections are not always accessible or affordable.

This proposed pilot program was influenced by a portable Wi-Fi initiative at the Cherryfield Public Library in Cherryfield, Maine. Through the library's "Check-out the Internet" initiative, students can check-out a mobile Wi-Fi device to provide them with Internet access outside of school. The initiative is a public-private partnership with the New York Public Library, Maine State Library, U.S. Cellular and Axiom Technologies. Additional sites in rural Maine are expected to go live this summer.

"Every student deserves a fair shot at success, but too many students in this country aren't getting that shot because when the school day ends so, too, does their access to the Internet and all the valuable education tools it provides. That gap is not only unfair, but it also puts them at a significant disadvantage that can seriously affect their futures," Senator King said. "But, as pilot programs in Maine and across the country have shown, there are creative ways to keep kids connected outside of the classroom. From checking out mobile Wi-Fi devices from the local library to installing wireless Internet on school buses for long commutes, our legislation would promote and expand innovative efforts underway in states and school districts that work to close this divide and ensure that all students--regardless of income or location--have around-the-clock access to the tools they need to learn and succeed."

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement that the Digital Learning Equity Act will address the homework gap that exists in households that don't have a computer or a broadband connection, calling it "The cruelest part of the new digital divide."

Rosenworcel added, "Today, too many students without broadband at home are unable to complete basic school assignments. They fall behind in the classroom--and we all lose out when we have a generation ill-prepared to enter the digital economy."

In order to participate in the this program, students must lack Internet access at home and have a laptop or tablet issued by their school through the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, a program that was spearheaded by then-Governor King to provide laptops to every seventh and eighth grade student in Maine.

A number of organizations and service providers, including the Alliance for Excellent Education, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Library Association, Common Sense Media, the Consortium for School Networking, the Competitive Carriers Association, Engine Advocacy, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, the National Education Association, the State Educational Technology Directors Association, and U.S. Cellular, have endorsed the new legislation.

For more:
- see the proposed bill (.pdf)
- see this release

Related articles:
Verizon enhances public sector reach with new MiCTA agreement
FCC raises E-rate subsidies to pay for extended education technology program
FCC's Wheeler: E-Rate reforms should address 'closing the rural fiber gap'
FCC approves $2B E-Rate changes aimed at improving broadband and Wi-Fi for schools, libraries

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