March 26, 2021 Features

E-Rate, Equity, Education … Oh My!

By Erika D. Robinson and Daiquiri J. Steele

Meaningful access to technology is one of many factors that separate the haves and the have-nots in achieving a high-quality public education. When dealing with existing inequities due to public education's inadequate funding, a global health crisis that limits a school district's capacity to engage in traditional learning exacerbates the already widening digital divide. The Public Education Committee of the ABA Section of State & Local Government Law explored the role of technology in educational equity during the Section's Virtual Fall Conference. Moderated by Public Education Committee Chair Erika D. Robinson, the program featured speakers that illuminated these inequities. 

The program opened with an explanation by Aubrey Coleman, siting advocacy manager, engineering and operations for T-Mobile, of the internet options available to both families and school districts. Coleman's discussion highlighted that "having internet" means different things to different people depending on the type of connectivity available. Infrastructure is vital, and some school districts have the funding to invest in the requisite infrastructure, while others do not.

E- Rate, also known as the Schools and Libraries Universal Service Support program, provides discounts of up to 90% to help eligible schools and libraries in the United States obtain affordable telecommunications and internet access. E-Rate is administered by the Universal Service Administration Company, under the Federal Communications Commission's direction, and was created for students to have connectivity in schools and libraries. However, now many students are not in schools and libraries for pandemic-related reasons. Broadening E-Rate to allow it to provide internet connectivity to students wherever the student may be would increase access and help reduce inequities.

The program provided examples of resources that are available in some areas. Programs like Cox Communications’ Connect2Compete provide in-home internet access for low-income families with students who are of school-age. Ebonee Younger, product manager, Cox Communications, noted that this program had had great success in some areas, but it is not without its barriers. For instance, Connect2Compete is specifically for families that are on government assistance. Hence, families who are low-income, but are not on government assistance are not eligible. Additionally, the program is for students in elementary and secondary school, so it cannot reach postsecondary students who may need internet access.

Adam Griffin, a partner at Adams and Reese, LLP, noted that the pre-existence of access to the internet affecting educational opportunities will likely continue post-pandemic. He highlighted that while the pandemic brought increased awareness to the lack of access to the internet, the connectivity deficit existed before the pandemic.

The program also discussed digital literacy and its seemingly circular nature. For instance, if an individual lacks digital literacy, yet has to visit a website to become digitally literate, a lack of broadband access would hinder literacy development.

Solutions include regulations to make internet service providers provide specific services. Another alternative is to offset the cost of broadband internet. There is an opportunity to use E-rate and CARES Act funding to help bridge this divide. Some districts with funding to do so have entertained the idea of becoming internet service providers themselves.

This program highlighted the opportunity to use the pandemic to bring awareness to the issue and generate support for finding systemic solutions.

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By Erika D. Robinson and Daiquiri J. Steele

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Erika D. Robinson is General Counsel of Jackson Public Schools and serves as chair of the ABA Section of State & Local Government Law Public Education Committee. Daiquiri J. Steele is a Forrester Fellow on the faculty of Tulane University Law School and vice chair of the ABA Section of State & Local Government Law Public Education Committee.