By Mary Scott Nabers, CEO of Strategic Partnerships, Inc.
After the sun goes down in Salton City, California, a lone, driverless school bus can be found parked at a local trailer park in this community of slightly more than 3,700 residents. It’s not waiting to pick up and deliver students to school. The bus is making another kind of “delivery.” It is there to provide Internet access for students in the community whose homes are not wired for access.
It’s hard to fathom that, in spite of the prevalence of tablets, laptops, smartphones and e-readers, a huge digital divide still exists. And, when a digital divide impacts public school districts, it is definitely cause for concern.
Salton City is one of many extreme cases nationwide. But school officials there are trying hard to provide for their students. The school’s Wi-Fi-connected bus provides Internet access by allowing homes to connect through technology in the vehicle. The bus has a Wi-Fi router onboard, but the Wi-Fi hotspot is available only for about an hour before the battery begins to fade.
Unfortunately, this type of disparity exists throughout the country. Not only do teachers and administrators of poor and underserved communities struggle with access to technology, they also have to deal with the fact that students who use technology at school don’t have access to it at home for homework and off-site study. That complicates teaching considerably.
Students in other schools districts are being similarly shortchanged because of inadequate access to the Internet. Without the technology privilege, they cannot cultivate the types of digital skills that are required for college and for 21st century careers.
Education Superhighway, an organization seeking to upgrade Internet infrastructure in K-12 schools, reports that more than 40 million students in the United States’ public schools “are being left behind” because of inadequate technology infrastructure. The organization says more than 60 percent of the nation’s schools don’t have sufficient broadband capacity. Additionally, 99 percent of America’s schools lack the bandwidth that is needed in just the next five years.
Students being “left behind” generally live in rural areas and come from low-income communities. Their inability to participate in digital learning experiences will have a very negative effect on their career choices and the nation overall will suffer because of it. A highly skilled, technology-savvy workforce is what makes nations competitive globally.
The State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) calls high-speed Internet access as important to K-12 school infrastructure as electricity, plumbing, air conditioning and heating. Yet, many taxpayers throughout the country are not aware of the ominous issues facing millions of American students because of inadequate broadband.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) E-Rate program, which is funded by telecommunication fees, works to ensure high-speed Internet for schools and libraries, but the base spending cap on the program – $2.4 billion – had not been changed since 1997. Last December, the FCC granted an expansion of the program, which will result in the funding cap growing to $3.9 billion. While the cost allocation sounds large, consumers will pay less than $2 per year per phone line because of the increase – an average of less than $6 more per household per year. That’s not a bad price for an investment in America’s youth, a more highly trained workforce and a boost to the overall economic competitiveness of the nation.