Despite billions of dollars in one-time federal relief money to help students learn online at home during the pandemic, the so-called homework gap persists.
In fact, some schools have stopped extending students and teachers without reliable internet the connectivity help they provided during the pandemic. Forty-five percent of public schools say they are still offering home internet to students. That’s down from 70 percent in September of 2021, according to survey data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Educators want to see the federal government provide permanent resources for home connectivity. The big question is: What should that look like?
There are two key options on the table:
Option a) Expand the E-rate to cover home internet. The E-rate has been around since the mid-1990’s and is primarily used to help school districts and libraries connect to the internet. It is financed by fees on certain telecommunications services, and governed by the Federal Communications Commission.
Right now, the E-rate program has room to cover more than just connectivity at schools and libraries. The program has a spending cap of $4.4 billion, but it has been allocating far less than that. Last year, the program doled out about $2.5 billion, and the year before that, it gave out a little less than $2.1 billion. The lower demand for the funds is due in part to changes made to the program in 2014.
Option b) The Emergency Connectivity Fund was initially created with $7.1 billion in emergency COVID relief funds to help students and teachers access virtual learning. The money can’t be used for expenditures made after June of this year. But the Consortium for School Networking wants to revive the program and make it a permanent fixture of the federal budget.
As for those excess E-rate funds, CoSN wants them dedicated to cybersecurity challenges, which its members see as the most pressing problem on K-12 tech leaders’ plates these days. A recent cyberattack on the nation’s largest school district, Los Angeles Unified, underscored the urgency of the problem.
“Given the serious, daily cyberattacks on schools’ networks, the E-rate clearly needs a more strategic focus on cybersecurity, beginning with modernizing the program’s firewall definition,” said Keith Krueger, the CEO of CoSN, in an email. “The Homework Gap, on the other hand, will best be addressed by permanently authorizing the Emergency Connectivity Fund.”
For now, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel hasn’t yet weighed in on the idea of using the E-rate for cybersecurity.
Rosenworcel has been a longtime proponent of federal resources to help kids access the internet at home, drawing attention to the problem long before the pandemic and the resulting expansion of virtual learning. In fact, she’s the one who coined the term “homework gap.”
There’s clearly support out there for the idea of using the excess E-rate funds for home connectivity. Nearly three quarters of respondents to a survey conducted this summer by Funds for Learning, a consulting company that helps school districts with their E-rate needs, said that allowing E-rate funds to go to home connectivity would be the “most practical solution” for financing off-campus internet access and/or remote learning. Only 5 percent of respondents disagreed with that statement, while 22 percent neither agreed nor disagreed.
“Bandwidth needs continue to increase as many online resources initiated in response to the pandemic continue to enjoy increased adoption and use,” said John Harrington, the CEO of Funds for Learning, in a note included with the survey results. “It is therefore imperative that the E-rate program continue to evolve and respond to changes in applicants’ needs while remaining true to its purpose.”
The FCC hasn’t tipped its hand on whether it prefers to close the homework gap through a permanent Emergency Connectivity Fund or whether it would like to do so through the E-rate. The agency asked for public input on the idea of expanding E-rate to cover home connectivity a couple of years ago, but has not taken further action since.
Even as they emphasized the importance of home connectivity, cybersecurity was clearly on the minds of some of the district officials who took the survey. They pleaded with the federal government to allow E-rate funds to be used for that purpose.
“Securing our network is our biggest cost and is not covered by E-rate as far as I know,” one commenter wrote. “While it covers hardware, the support and licensing costs are the biggest expense.”
“There is a constant cyber war,” another wrote. “If you doubt it, call on the E-rate users to share their filter reports to show what they are blocking now. Oh, but [E-rate] doesn’t fund Content Filtering or Cyber Threat analysis. Are you really alive in this current world?”