Funding for a program created to provide students and teachers with internet access and digital devices to use at home is not included in the federal budget for fiscal year 2023.
That decision will make it harder to close the so-called “homework gap,” which is the term used to describe the term that still leaves many students without internet access at home, experts say.
Schools are increasingly relying on technologies for classroom teaching and learning, from learning management systems to multimedia curricula to Internet research. And in some cases, schools are turning snow days into distance learning days. This makes it all the more important that students have sufficient internet connectivity and devices to access study materials from home, even as most schools are no longer closing their buildings to help contain the spread of COVID-19.
The Federal Communications Commission’s Emergency Connectivity Fund was established during the pandemic to help schools and libraries provide the tools their communities need for distance learning. Congress allocated $7.2 billion to the program through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. To date, the FCC has committed $6.5 billion and the fund has helped millions of students and educators who didn’t have access to broadband or digital devices at home.
“The program has been incredibly successful,” said Jon Bernstein, President of the Bernstein Strategy Group and Co-Chair of the Homework Gap Big Tent Coalition. “We believe it has significantly narrowed the existing homework gap.”
But in the federal budget for the 2023 financial yearthere is no additional funding to continue the program, although there is still great demand for it, even after dozens of education groups have asked lawmakers to do so continue funding.
“There’s about $1.3 billion of demand left, but there’s only $600 million left to meet that demand,” Bernstein said. “So you see hundreds and millions of dollars worth of demand from school districts and libraries for ECF funding that will go unmet unless we find more money for this program.”
Although the Emergency Connectivity Fund was not intended to be a permanent program, advocates of digital justice say it’s important to find a long-term, sustainable solution to the homework gap. The problem is that when those dollars run out, students still have the devices but not the money to pay for Internet access at home, Bernstein added. That likely means students from the most disadvantaged communities will be left without access.
“We are now at a crossroads where Congress has recognized a need and provided a temporary fix, but [has] not progressed at all on a substantive or sustainable platform to continue to address an ongoing need,” said Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director for advocacy and governance at AASA, the School Superintendents Association.
“We are considering a scenario where that initial investment of significant money could ultimately go to waste,” said Ellerson Ng.
Proponents hope Congress will approve additional funding, either through a standalone bill or as part of next fiscal year’s budget. But with a divided government, it could be a steep hill to climb, Bernstein said.
States and school districts may also be able to offer patchwork funding to provide these services to their residents and students. But a recent survey by the National Center for Education Statistics found that schools are halting efforts to provide students with internet access at home, most likely due to the drying up of federal COVID relief aid.
“There could also be a conversation between stakeholders to see what telcos can do to take a more serious approach and ensure they are actually making a good faith effort to provide connectivity in all of these areas,” Ellerson Ng said. Part of the problem is companies deciding whether or not to roll fiber lines to certain areas at an affordable price, she said.
At the end of the day, according to Bernstein, there must be “a stable source of funding”.
“We don’t want to reverse the progress we’ve made in closing the homework gap,” he said.