These days, internet access is crucial for students both in and out of the classroom. “Underconnected” students—those with limited or no internet access at home—may have difficulty completing homework assignments. This puts them at risk of falling behind better-connected students.
With back to school season on the horizon, today’s WatchBlog looks at our report on how school districts are attempting to address this “homework gap,” and the role the federal government is playing in those efforts.
Income and internet access
Not having fast, reliable, in-home internet can make it tough for students to complete homework. We found that school-age children from lower-income households are more likely to rely on mobile wireless service for their internet connection than their peers in higher-income households. Have you ever tried typing a 300-word essay on a smartphone?
Underconnected students may seek out ways to access wireless internet away from home to do their homework, which can bring other challenges.
Bridging the homework gap
Some school districts have addressed disparities in students' in-home internet access by finding ways to expand wireless access off school grounds. For example:
- The Green Bay Area Public School District in Wisconsin loans out mobile wireless hot-spot devices to students who do not have access at home.
- The Boulder Valley School District in Colorado allowed a local wireless provider to build antennas on some school buildings in exchange for providing free service to lower-income students.
- From 2014 to 2017, Coachella Valley Unified School District in California equipped its fleet of about 100 school buses with Wi-Fi, enabling students to do homework during long bus rides. District officials said they are seeking funding to restart the initiative.
The federal connection
None of the 6 school district projects we reviewed had used federal funds to help provide wireless internet access for students off school grounds, and we found that the federal role in these efforts was limited.
The Federal Communication Commission’s E-rate program provides discounts on telecommunications and internet access services to schools. But E-rate does not support off-premises internet access. School district officials told us this restriction may affect districts’ ability to expand wireless access off school grounds, and thus to address the homework gap.
We recommended that FCC take steps to assess and publish the potential benefits, costs, and challenges of making off-premises wireless internet access eligible for E-rate support.
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