The Digital Divide Didn’t Go Away, It Went Underground

In 1998, speaking at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, President Bill Clinton said, “Today, affluent schools are almost three times as likely to have Internet access in the classroom; white students are more than twice as likely as black students to have computers in their homes. We can extend opportunity to all Americans or leave many behind. We can erase lines of inequity or etch them indelibly.”

I was at the U.S. Department of Education when President Clinton gave this address. At the time, we were hard at work launching E-Rate, a sweeping effort born out of the recognition that internet usage was growing dramatically and had great potential to support k-12 education, but access to the internet was not universal. People in the education civil rights community had pointed out that there was a significant divide in terms of who could and couldn’t access the plethora of information available on the internet. In large segments of the nation (particularly rural areas and inner cities) local libraries, schools and museums had no internet service. The infrastructure and fiber cable necessary to provide internet service wasn’t there.

E-Rate is the federal program that offers schools and libraries a subsidized educational rate for telecommunications services, most crucially, internet service. Funded through the Federal Communications Commission, E-Rate was intended to get communities wired and close the digital divide. At the same time, the philanthropic world and the Department of Education were providing grants to help pay for internet service and computers for schools. The goal was to ensure that all students, regardless of their socio-economic status, would have internet access. Despite that effort, two decades later, the digital divide is still very much with us. Its persistence and depth have been brought to light by efforts to institute distance learning on a broad scale in response to COVID-19. If we don’t close this divide, the impact will be devastating.

Right now, school districts are making and implementing plans for carrying on the learning that must happen. The result has been a broad embrace of the technology that allows learning to happen remotely, but hundreds of thousands of students don’t have access to that technology.

If we don’t start addressing this persistent divide, gaps in educational attainment are going to intensify. The current situation is exacerbated by state budget shortfalls. Revenue has been obliterated in many places by the pandemic, so funds and resources to address these gaps will be sparse. The challenges associated with distance learning go beyond lack of internet access, though.

Too many teachers have too little or no experience providing remote education. This was the case during the Clinton Administration, too. We were concerned that school leaders would say, “we’re online and have computers, but we don’t have enough faculty who know how to use this technology.” Then, as now, there was not enough expertise or training. Educators didn’t know how to incorporate the internet and computers in classroom instruction. That was what we believed was the last hurdle as I was leaving the Department of Education: training teachers to integrate technology into the classroom.

Now, I’m President of the Southern Education Foundation (SEF), an organization that advances education equity. When 2020 began, no one was talking about the digital divide and it was not on our research agenda. We were focused on resource equity, school reform, school governance and privatization. When COVID-19 hit in March, we changed course and found ourselves collaborating with organizations like Common Sense Media on their Wide Open Schools initiative to provide technology and resources to students. Once we began examining the disparities related to remote learning, chief amongst them, lack of access to computers and the internet, many of us realized that the digital divide had never gone away.

That awareness led us to develop a series of questions related to equity for the leaders of schools and school districts to consider and address in their remote learning plans. As we developed those questions, it became clear that the digital divide is larger than ever. All of us who assumed it had been effectively bridged are seeing its magnitude highlighted in these unprecedented times when kids can’t go to school to learn.

Right now, all parents and guardians are struggling with remote learning to some extent, but people of means can work this out for their children. They can buy computers, create learning pods, identify complementary online education resources and buy laptops and desktops with cameras so their kids can participate in classes online. But families in Baltimore or Edgecombe County, North Carolina or East LA with total household incomes around $30,000 to $40,000  (or lower) struggle just to pay an internet bill. Parents are parking outside libraries and fast food restaurants so their kids can get online. Our country is better than that.

This state of affairs is leading to growing gaps in educational opportunity and attainment. And looming budget cuts due to decreased revenue are going to make it worse. We need to pay close attention to how school districts are implementing remote learning to ensure that all students have the technological and other support they need. We are living in unprecedented times and will be learning lessons and discovering best practices as we go. School district leaders and policy makers will have to be open to experimentation and prepared to be flexible in implementing procedures as we learn more about what works and what doesn’t.

We also need our political leaders to address these gaps in budget discussions. More of them need to follow the example of U.S. Representative James Clyburn who pushed to include funds to address the digital divide in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act and continues to push for universal broadband access.

In our nation, opportunity is closely tied to education. If we don’t act quickly and intentionally  to close the digital divide, we could well see significantly larger gaps in learning and opportunity. As President Clinton said in 1998, “We can extend opportunity to all Americans or leave many behind. We can erase lines of inequity or etch them indelibly.” Let’s erase them.

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