As schools transition back after more than two years of Covid-related disruptions, it’s critical that all of us, educators, parents, and community members, stay focused on ending the inequities that the pandemic exposed and exacerbated in public education. One of the most urgent inequities is the digital divide — the growing gap between communities that have access to the internet and computers, and those that do not.
The pandemic exposed and exacerbated many of the access gaps that our education system has created for Black, Latino and low-income communities across California. In our annual poll of Los Angeles families, we learned that 84% of families say they still face challenges accessing the internet at home. The two biggest reasons they shared are that internet is just too expensive and internet access that is affordable is too poor quality to meet the family’s needs.
While students have largely returned to in-person learning, far too many are still walking into classrooms academically behind because their access to fast, reliable and affordable internet at home isn’t sufficient to complete their homework (or accelerate their learning). According to a survey from the Pew Research Center, 59% of lower-income families across the country faced some form of digital inequity, with many having to log on from a smartphone, others who did not have a device and many more who had to use public networks because they did not have reliable internet at home. In California, over 25% of K-12 students did not have reliable internet access at home and 10% of low-income households rely on smartphones to access the internet.
This means that wealthier students — those whose families live in areas with better broadband infrastructure and can afford to pay high prices for fast and reliable internet — have an easier time applying for college, finding and enrolling in out-of-school learning opportunities, and doing their homework. As a result of the digital divide, there are many resources for pandemic recovery that Black, Latino and low-income students simply do not have access to.
There are three clear steps that our state policy leaders can take today to achieve digital equity for California students and families.
First is delivering fast, reliable, affordable broadband for all. More investment is needed to address our state’s inequitable internet infrastructure. This means that every household in California should have access to equal service with equal terms and conditions — not service that is differentiated on household income or neighborhood. Reforming the nearly 2-decades-old policy that regulates the state’s largest internet service companies to require equal access is a good place to start. Legislation to do just that is actively under consideration in the state Assembly. Voters should contact their state legislators and urge support for Assembly Bill 2748, authored by Assemblymember Chris Holden.
Second, our state and local policy leaders must increase competition in the broadband market. Right now, the California Broadband Coalition estimates that about half of all Californians have no say in who provides their broadband access. These monopolies mean that providers have little incentive to keep prices low or to maintain or upgrade infrastructure. Having choices among service providers is good for California families because it drives better service and lower prices. Right now, there is a fierce battle underway at the California Public Utilities Commission pitting some of the world’s largest companies against rules that would incentivize and direct public dollars toward broadband infrastructure that would drive a more competitive market. The commission needs to hear from families and local leaders; tell the commissioners you support the proposed decision on the new Federal Funding Account, and urge them to adopt it as soon as possible.
Finally, we need local solutions targeted to local needs. With unprecedented allocations of public dollars toward addressing digital inequity, it is now more important than ever that public dollars at the local level get utilized to make community-driven investments in durable, systemic solutions. The way we’ve handled broadband access for the last 20 years has led us to this untenable, inequitable place; it’s urgent that local leaders commit to finding a better, more community-driven and equity-focused path forward. County supervisors, mayors, city council members, city managers and other local leaders around the state are (or should be) racing to build plans and apply for state and federal funds. They need to know that their communities support them in saying no to more of the same and investing in new solutions. Make sure your local leaders hear from you.
We have the power to transform student outcomes, re-imagine care for children and families and launch California’s educational systems into the future. That future begins with ensuring digital equity for every student in our state.
Ana Ponce is executive director of Great Public Schools Now, a nonprofit grant-making organization focused on improving educational outcomes and opportunities for Los Angeles children of color and those living in poverty.
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