A bill recently introduced in the U.S. Congress would make make E-Rate money available to support Wi-Fi on school buses, the latest of several recent recent efforts to expand student internet connectivity outside school hours.
Sens. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have introduced the legislation, which would require the Federal Communications Commission to issue regulations to make Wi-Fi access on school buses eligible for support under the E-Rate program no later than 180 days after enactment. Under the bill, schools would be reimbursed for equipping buses with Wi-Fi.
The E-Rate program is funded at $4 billion annually, and allows schools to receive reimbursement for certain internet services provided on campus.
If policymakers provide more financial support for off-campus wireless services, it could increase the ability of students to make use of companies’ ed-tech tools, apps, and platforms, including on long bus rides where students have access to laptops and other devices, if this bill gets enacted.
The bill is aimed, in part, at promoting digital equity for rural and tribal communities in states like New Mexico, according to Lujan’s office.
Approximately one-quarter of New Mexico’s over 350,000 students don’t have affordable internet, according to a statement by the New Mexico Homework Gap Team, which describes itself as an ad hoc group of professionals who support narrowing the digital divide for K-12 students in the state.
A December study by the Alliance for Excellent Education estimated that almost 17 million students nationwide lack home internet access to complete school assignments.
“For rural and tribal students who travel hours to and from school, these commutes can be valuable time accessing the internet, completing assignments, and conducting research,” Lujan said in a statement. “Empowering our schools to equip buses with Wi-Fi is an opportunity to uplift our students, tackle the homework gap, and help alleviate the financial strain that too many families are experiencing at home.”
If passed, the legislation would give schools more flexibility in terms of figuring out how they can best use ed tech to promote equity, said Amina Fazlullah, equity policy director for Common Sense Media, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting safe and effective technology use for children.
“Every community has different layers of barriers to equitable access to education related to technology,” she said in an interview. “Having that flexibility ultimately in the E-Rate program will be incredibly useful for schools where students have long commutes.”
But Fazlullah suggested that the ed-tech funding expansion outlined in the Lujan-Graham bill shouldn’t substitute for other potential federal initiatives to support costs for students’ home connectivity.
It remains to be seen whether the FCC will act decisively on some lawmakers’ and education advocates’ calls for a long-term, dedicated funding source to support students’ home connectivity.
The COVID-19 stimulus package approved earlier this month allocated $7 billion to the FCC for the creation of what is being called the “Emergency Connectivity Fund,” separate from E-Rate, to pay for high-speed internet and devices used off campus.
The commission also recently announced plans for a policy that, among many other things, would allow school districts to apply for reimbursement for costs they have paid for students and teachers to access broadband at home.
FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, in an interview with Education Week this month, said the agency remains in the “process of evaluating how we can update the current E-Rate program to meet the moment students and families find themselves in.” She spoke after the agency in February issued a request for public comments on whether E-Rate funds could be used to support remote learning during the pandemic.
In 2018, then a U.S. congressman, Lujan became familiar with how Wi-Fi operates on a school bus when he attended a “Rolling Study Halls” event. Hosted by Santa Fe Schools and funded by Google, the event took a Wi Fi-equipped bus to a Native American pueblo in New Mexico, Tom Ryan, chief information and strategy officer for the district, noted in an email.
In addition to Santa Fe, the Albuquerque district is one other school system that has outfitted school buses with mobile Wi-Fi units, installing hot spots on 80 buses across the area as of October.
Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., has introduced legislation similar to the Lujan-Graham bill in the House.
The legislation has picked up endorsements from the National Education Association, Competitive Carriers Association, Free Press, Public Knowledge, School Superintendents Association, Association of Educational Service Agencies, Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents, National Rural Education Association, National Rural Education Advocacy Consortium, and the State Educational Technology Directors Association.
Photo: Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., is pictured on June 29, 2018, visiting the Kewa Pueblo, a Native American settlement southwest of Santa Fe, N.M. The program was called “Rolling Study Halls” which was funded by Google.