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Why the “homework gap” is key to America’s digital divide

FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel on why children are being left behind in the US—and how this can be solved

October 13, 2020
Jessica Rosenworcel testifies before SenateJessica Rosenworcel testifies before Senate
Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via AP, Pool

When the pandemic hit, parents scrambled to get enough devices to get their kids for online schooling. But even when they did, not everything went smoothly. Getting multiple people online for hours at a time in a home was one big obstacle; making sure entire communities were able to sign on was another.

Jessica Rosenworcel, the senior Democrat on the Federal Communications Commission, wasn’t surprised. For years, Rosenworcel has talked about the “homework gap,” the term she coined to describe a problem facing communities where kids can’t access the internet because infrastructure is inadequate, their families can’t afford it, or both. 

People are now paying attention—not least because rumors are swirling that if Joe Biden is elected president, she could be appointed chairperson of the FCC. (Rosenworcel would not confirm these rumors, citing the Hatch Act.)

The FCC’s current broadband standard is a download speed of at least 25 megabits per second—the minimum for a single 4K Netflix stream. But in rural areas, where a Pew study estimates that one-third of Americans don’t have access to broadband, those speeds are unheard of. And while the Pew data indicates that about three-quarters of urban and suburban households have access to broadband, take that claim with a huge grain of salt: in current FCC mapping, a zip code is considered to be served with broadband if a single household has access.

In light of these problems, Rosenworcel is passionate about getting the FCC to update the E-Rate program, a federal education technology service created in 1996 that offers schools and libraries discounted internet access. 

I spoke to Rosenworcel about her plans to use the program to address the homework gap. This interview has been edited and condensed for length.

How did you come up with the term “homework gap”?

When I joined the FCC, I decided that I would visit some schools that were E-Rate beneficiaries when I was traveling for work. And something struck me: I wound up in big cities and in small towns, in urban America and rural America, but I heard the very same things from teachers and administrators no matter where I went: “The E-Rate program is great. We now have these devices we can use in all of our classrooms. But when our students go home at night, not all of them have reliable internet access at home. It’s hard for our teachers to assign homework if we don’t have the confidence that every student has reliable access outside of school.”

The more that I talked to teachers, the more I heard the same stories over and over again: Kids sitting in the school parking lot with school laptops they had borrowed late into the evening, trying to peck away at homework because that was the only place they could actually get online. Or kids sitting in fast food restaurants and doing their homework with a side of fries.

I looked at the data and I found that seven in 10 teachers would assign homework that requires internet access. But FCC data consistently shows that one in three households don’t have broadband at home. I started calling where those numbers overlap the “homework gap” because I felt that this portion of the digital divide really needed a phrase or a term to describe it because it’s so important.

It’s becoming apparent that every student needs this to complete schoolwork now. And then enter the pandemic, right? We sent millions and millions of kids home. We told so many of them to go to online class, but the data suggests that as many as 17 million of them can’t make it there, so now this homework gap is becoming an education gap—and I worry it can become a long-term opportunity gap if we don’t correct it.

Why does the US have such digital inequity?

Well, we’re really a diverse country. We’re also diverse geographically, and that has wonderful qualities but it also has consequences. It takes some work to make sure everyone is connected. But we’ve done it before. We did it with electricity following the Rural Electrification Act. We did it with basic telephony. We can do it again with broadband. 

Early in the pandemic I spoke to immigrant families and people who don’t have access to the internet unless they go to a public space. A lot of them were told they could get reduced-rate internet, but that was difficult in terms of documentation and being able to pay those rates. How has the FCC addressed this issue, and do you think there is a way to move forward here?

I’m one of five people at the FCC. I’m the senior Democrat. I’m not in the majority. I can be noisy and I can be relentless, but I don’t always convince my colleagues.

I am convinced that we can update the E-Rate program using existing law and support schools—loaning out Wi-Fi hot spots, for instance. I think we can do that today with the E-Rate program.

And shame on us for not doing it. Because we’re not doing it, what you see are pictures like the one that went viral of two girls sitting outside of a Taco Bell in Salinas, California, not for lunch—they were there because they were using the free Wi-Fi signal. And what you now see is Wi-Fi in parking lots across this country in places that have been closed down because there’s this cruel virus and students are sitting in hot cars attending class and doing their schoolwork. And then other students are entirely locked out of the virtual classrooms, because they just don’t have a way to get online.

So shame on the FCC for not making it a priority to update E-Rate to address this crisis, because it’s within our power to help right now. I am saddened that my agency keeps looking the other way.

What is the demographic of kids most affected by the homework gap?

It has a disproportionate impact on communities of color. It’s disproportionately harmful to rural America and disproportionately harms low-income households. What’s most cruel to me about this is that we have a program we could update and help fix this, but we keep looking the other way. So many students are unable to attend class in person right now. And if they can’t make it into online classrooms and they’re out of schools for months, it’s going to have a long-term impact on their education. 

Is implementing the E-Rate program even feasible right now?

One of the beauties of the E-Rate program is that it’s set up in a way so that more support goes to schools with greater numbers of students on free or reduced-price lunch programs. In other words, it’s almost a perfect map of where the demand is most likely. We could use that to really figure out how to get devices or wireless hot spots out to students—things that could make a meaningful difference. I mean, it wasn’t that long ago that every student didn’t always get textbooks or a grammar workbook. We have to start recognizing that for students who don’t have internet access at home, having the school loan out a wireless hot spot is the difference between keeping up in class and falling behind. We can do something to fix this. 

How quickly can we expand the E-Rate program? 

The truth is that we should have started this at the start of the pandemic. Seven months in is too late, but today is better than tomorrow. We should be doing this immediately. And it’s not totally irrational. Years ago, the FCC years ago made some adjustments following Hurricane Katrina to a different program that helps low-income households get internet service, to make sure that everyone who got displaced was able to get phone service started again with a wireless line. 

We have a history of looking at a disaster, trying to assess what’s necessary to keep people connected, and updating our programs in response. We should be doing this right now with E-Rate for the homework gap.

I read that you’re a mom. 

I am!

I’m curious what you thought about homeschooling and being online during this time.

[Laughs, then sighs] It’s work. Hats off to every parent. It’s work. [Pause] It’s a lot. When this is all said and done, I hope we look back and recognize that a lot of educators turned on a dime and did their best to move from physical presence to digital presence. I hope in the future we’ll think a little bit more about digital education, how we can benefit from it, and what the challenges are when everybody is not connected.