Senators add voices to 'digital equity' issue, introduce bill

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The Federal Communications Commission isn’t the only player in Washington trying to close the “homework gap.”

The same day that
the FCC voted to expand the Lifeline program to allow consumers to apply for broadband subsidies along with wired and wireless phone service, Sens. Angus King, I-Maine, and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.V., introduced the Digital Learning Equity Act of 2015.

The legislation would support pilot programs in school districts that seek ways to help kids get Internet access outside of the classroom.

The bill would also require the Department of Education to conduct a national study about the digital divide, including stats and information about the obstacles students have in accessing Internet at home, and how the lack of Wi-Fi affects student learning and outcomes.

According to the Pew Research Center, roughly 5 million children do not have access to the Internet at home.
Teachers have said it’s difficult to assign homework on computers when many students don’t have access to high-speed broadband at home.

King said in a statement Thursday that there are creative solutions to make broadband more available to children trying to complete their homework, apply to jobs and complete other projects outside of school.

“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,” he said.

Capito said more than half the residents in her state — 56 percent — lack broadband services that meet the FCC’s standards, and the divide is more pronounced in rural areas of West Virginia.

“This bipartisan legislation will explore innovative ways to bring us closer to achieving that goal and giving all students a chance to excel,” she said in a statement.

Education advocates hailed the bill, saying it’s important that legislators understand learning does not stop after the final school bell rings.

“We cannot allow the homework gap to grow and further limit students from low-income families,” said Keith Krueger, CEO of CoSN, an educational technology nonprofit. “We must provide opportunities and an investment that reduces digital inequities, supports student achievement at all times and better prepares them for college, career and life.”

“Broadband access is critical for educators and students to have powerful, personalized learning at their fingertips,” said Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning. “Providing improved connectivity will increase the educational opportunities available and prepare all students with the skills they need to be successful in college and careers.”

The legislation amplifies the FCC’s call to make broadband available to low-income residents. Last week, in a 3-2 vote, the agency said it was committed to modernizing the 30-year-old Lifeline program, though budget details and other issues haven’t been worked out yet.

Mignon Clyburn, one of the commissioners who has been spearheading the change, said Monday at the New America Foundation that she proposed a new name for the revamped Lifeline program called “iBridge Now.”

“The FCC adopted a framework which would sunset the current Lifeline program and replace it with what I am proposing to be known going forward as iBridge Now,” Clyburn said at the event, called “Making Mobile Broadband Affordable.”

Clyburn said iBridge Now, unlike Lifeline, would “treat consumers with dignity.”

“Low-income consumers will have access to voice service and broadband services comparable to everyone else,” she said. “Second-class or inferior service will not be acceptable.”

A name change is not formally listed in the proposal to overhaul Lifeline, and Clyburn would have to persuade the other commissioners — there are four, plus Chairman Tom Wheeler — to agree to it.

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