Who Will We Leave Behind?

Kevin Taglang is travelling again, so this week we share an editorial from our chairman, Charles Benton, on the big news surrounding the E-rate program.

One of the most important challenges of our generation is to ensure that every child in every classroom has a chance to succeed and win in the global economy. Poverty, discrimination, isolation and ignorance hold our country back. But investments in education, infrastructure and technology spur economic growth, creating more good jobs and wealth for all of us. It is in our national interest to ensure that every child — no matter who they are, no matter what they look like, no matter where they come from — has the opportunity to succeed.

Many countries have made access to gigabit speed broadband in their schools a priority. But new research conducted for the LEAD Commission and the Alliance for Excellent Education by Dr. John B. Horrigan, the nation’s leading authority on broadband adoption and use, shows how much more the United States must do before American K-12 schools have sufficient bandwidth for today’s educational needs. The research finds that just 34% of K-12 students in public schools attend schools where Internet speeds are 100 Mbps or more. One in five (20%) students attends schools with Internet speeds of only 10 Mbps or less.

The report also highlights great disparities in connectivity in the United States for schools with high concentrations of low-income, minority, and rural students:

  • Low-income students: Schools where 75% or more of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches are nearly twice as likely as students in affluent schools to have slow Internet access at school;
  • Latino and African American students: Schools where 75% or more of students are either Latino or African America are nearly half as likely to have fast (100 Mbps or more) Internet speeds than schools with a high share of white students; and
  • Rural students: In remote parts of rural America, students are more than twice as likely as suburban students to have slow Internet access at their schools.

A 2013 Council on Foreign Relations report warns of a growing achievement gap between the wealthy and the poor and the long-term negative impact on our nation’s future productivity. Strikingly, the report does not focus on the average amount spent on education per student in the U.S., but rather on the unequal investments. The majority of developed countries invest more resources per pupil in lower-income school districts than in higher-income ones. It is the reverse in the United States, in large part because local property taxes provide most revenues for K-12 public schools. The investment gap continues in college and has increased significantly over time. If students find themselves in a resource-strapped environment, they are more likely to be plagued by achievement gaps for the rest of their lives.

When faced with low funding per pupil, schools can use technology to give every child equal access to the same universe of knowledge while more efficiently stretching meager budgets to meet the needs of students and teachers.

Since the mid-1990s, the Benton Foundation has been examining the role of the Internet in the classroom. We know that Internet-based technologies and tools are already enhancing learning outcomes. By being more directly engaged in the learning process, students are able to more quickly master course content. They become adept at problem solving and can participate in the creation of their own content via various forms of media. With next-generation networks, schools can provide more customized learning opportunities for students to access high-quality, low-cost and personally relevant educational material. And use of these networks can also improve the flow of educational information, allowing teachers, parents and organizations to make better decisions tied to each student’s needs and abilities.

In addition, the benefits of faster Internet in schools are enormous for:

  • Enabling tomorrow’s learning technologies today, such as video conferencing with experts, 3d printing and simulation;
  • Boosting the nation’s competitiveness and the number of graduates proficient in science, technology, engineering, and math (the STEM fields);
  • Allowing children in rural America access to the same universe of knowledge available to students in major cities; and
  • Providing businesses with the qualified graduates needed to fill high paying jobs.

Recognizing the vital role of telecommunications in expanding educational opportunity and improving educational outcomes, President Barack Obama, in June 2013, laid out a vision for investment in connectivity for education: 99% of American students should have access to next-generation broadband by 2017. That vision aimed at connectivity will help transform the classroom experience for all students, regardless of income, ethnicity or location.

Access to adequate broadband capacity in our schools is not a luxury — it is a necessity for our next generation to be able to compete. Today and into the future, knowledge, jobs, and capital are going to migrate to places where workers have digital age skills, especially those in the STEM fields. STEM jobs are growing at a rate three times faster than other occupations. And even opportunities outside of STEM will be increasingly digitized. Students will need technology skills to become competitive in the worldwide workforce. The implications are clear. Workers who are not equipped with technology skills will be left vying for a shrinking pool of low-wage jobs.

But digital learning cannot take place at dial-up speeds. Connecting all schools to high-speed broadband will help re-establish the U.S. as a global leader in education — setting an example for other countries that are struggling to improve their educational systems. Today’s students are not just competing with kids across the hall, across town or across the country; they are competing with students around the globe whose countries have made high speed access to gigabit speed broadband in their schools a priority. If we want to out-innovate and out-educate our global competitors, leaving kids behind will be costly to us in the long run. We’ll be left trying to start our economic engine without all pistons firing.

Unfortunately, the average U. S. school has about the same connectivity as the average American home, but serves 200 times as many users. Fewer than 20 percent of educators say their school’s Internet connection meets their teaching needs. This unmet bandwidth demand is even more disturbing when considered against the backdrop of the current unmet funding demand. The budget for the Federal Communications Commission’s E-rate program, which discounts telecommunications costs for schools and libraries, is about $2.4 billion. But application demand is approximately $5 billion. Those who are opposing an E-rate upgrade would have us leave rural students behind, poor students behind, and minority students behind.

On November 17, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler outlined a plan to increase E-rate spending to $3.9 billion per year. The proposal goes a long way to addressing the gaps identified in the Horrigan research. This boost in E-rate funding will help bring high-speed Internet connections to schools, and Wi-Fi connections that deliver critical education tools right to students’ desks.

We must act now to give our children the tools they needs to succeed in the 21st century. We need to address the access gap – we need to bring high capacity broadband to every school. We must address the affordability gap – schools must be able to handle the recurring costs for high capacity connections. And we must address the funding gap – additional E-rate support is needed to ensure the schools lagging in capacity now can gain ground with new connections. We need to invest in the infrastructure that allows schools to build a strong foundation for their current and future connectivity needs.

In the American Dream, everyone has a chance to succeed. Connectivity in the 21st Century increasingly drives that success. If we do not act to improve high-speed Internet connectivity for all schools, we will see an increase in the divide that exists along lines of income, race, and geography. If the U.S. is to continue being a world leader in educational innovation, we must invest now in the networks that connect our schools.

By Charles Benton.