White House Unveils New ConnectED Effort Focused on Library Access, Content

By Audrey Armitage — April 30, 2015 3 min read
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President Obama today is announcing a pair of White House initiatives aimed at increasing students’ access to public libraries, and boosting the ability of economically disadvantaged students to use the digital resources available in those facilities.

At an appearance at the Anacostia Library in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, the president is expected to put forward a plan, supported by commercial publishers, to provide more than $250 million worth of free e-book content to students from low-income families, along with a second effort meant to give all students in 30 different communities, and eventually nationwide, a library card.

The two efforts are part of the ConnectED program, a White House plan launched in 2013 that has drawn financial support from numerous ed-tech providers and private organizations with the goal of improving digital education and Web connectivity.

Several major publishers, including Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, and Hachette, are supporting the e-book program, and will provide over 10,000 of the most well-known books to students as e-resources.

As part of the e-book effort, nonprofits and librarian networks will work with the New York Public Library to develop an app designed to give low-income families access the newly available digital materials.

Significant disparities in access to books currently exist between students of different socioeconomic status. There are approximately 13 books per child available in middle income families, but only one book per 300 children living in low-income neighborhoods, according to Jeff Zients, director of the White House’s National Economic Council, in speaking to reporters about the effort this week.

Despite the initiative’s expanded availability of free digital content, barriers to access may persist for low-income students, as the free ebooks require a device in order to be used.

To address the issue of unequal access to computing devices, Zients pointed to other efforts within the broader ConnectED program to boost the technology available for students. Apple, for instance, recently provided $100 million worth of digital devices to low-income schools.

Access to public libraries varies greatly among students in different communities and from families in different economic circumstances, Cecilia Muñoz, the director of the White House’s Domestic Policy Council, told reporters.

First-grade students at or above the poverty level are more than twice as likely as students below the poverty level to have access to public libraries, Muñoz said.

The White House says that its plan, called the ConnectED Library Challenge, has drawn a commitment from more than 30 different cities and counties to give every child enrolled in school a library card. However, the ultimate goal of the project, Muñoz said, is to make library access universal for all U.S. students.

In addition to promoting library card access, libraries will also offer educational programs, improve access to digital resources, and provide high-speed connectivity for library patrons.

No additional federal funding will accompany these new efforts, the White House noted that ConnectedED has received $2 billion from the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates telecommunications, another $2 billion from private sector foundations, and $1.5 billion in additional annual funding.

The FCC has led recent efforts to increase funding for the federal E-rate program, which supports Internet connectivity in the nation’s schools and libraries, particularly in low-income communities.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.