State Efforts to Close the K-12 Digital Divide May Fail


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Stephanie Holcomb, Rutgers University; Andrea Hetling, Rutgers University; Gregory Porumbescu, Rutgers University – Newark, and Vishal Trehan, Rutgers University – Newark

(THE CONVERSATION) In 2021, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy announced that his state’s education officials had “closed” the digital divide by ensuring that every student in public schools has a computer. laptop or tablet and Internet access.

“Bridging the digital divide wasn’t just about addressing the challenges of remote learning,” Murphy, a Democrat, said at the time. “It was about making sure every student has the tools they need to excel in a 21st century educational environment.”

While the Murphy administration has succeeded in giving 358,212 students access to essential educational tools they previously lacked, the digital divide remains an issue in New Jersey as well as across the country.

Federal data

A US Census Bureau survey conducted during the pandemic found that not all families with school-aged children had access to the internet or computers. Levels varied by race and family income.

For example, while 84% of Asian families said they always had a computer on hand for educational purposes, only 72% of Hispanic or Latino families did.

And 87% of Asian families said they always have internet access for school-related activities. But only 68% of families who were biracial, multiracial, or belong to a group labeled “other races” — that is, non-white, non-black, non-Asian, and non-Hispanic or Latino — said the same.

High-income families were more likely to have both internet access and digital devices always available for education. But even the highest income households did not have 100% availability of either. And only about two-thirds of families with incomes below $35,000 did.

State and local efforts

Different communities have taken different approaches to managing the digital divide before and during the pandemic. A review by the National Governors Association showed that some education officials were looking to meet students’ immediate needs, such as access to home computers, while others were exploring long-term broadband solutions.

Some states have partnered with ISPs or nonprofits focused specifically on digital access or inclusion, or other organizations with broader missions, such as local libraries.

In Philadelphia, the city has worked with the school district, foundations, and local cable companies to ensure that all public school students have free, reliable Internet access at home. Chicago did something similar.

In October 2021, New York City announced an initiative to build an open-access public broadband system to provide affordable internet access throughout the city.

Partnerships like this have resulted in the provision of mobile hotspots, free internet subscriptions and digital literacy classes. Other local efforts, including city governments and nonprofits, have sought to improve public Wi-Fi service and provide computers or tablets to people who need them.

A lasting problem

A 2021 report from New America and Rutgers University shows that although internet access has increased significantly since 2015, 1 in 7 children still do not have high-speed internet access at home.

One reason may be the emphasis on temporary solutions to deeper social problems. A device and access point issued for a year does not permanently solve problems as complex as the digital divide.

Another factor may be the ability to identify people in need. The New Jersey survey did not ask families about their devices and connectivity. Instead, state officials asked local school districts and took their word for it without double-checking reported results.

At the federal level, similar attempts to measure the digital divide have also failed, overestimating the number of people with computers and internet service. The Federal Communications Commission has also exaggerated the extent to which high-speed service is available to Internet customers.

Federal funding

The federal infrastructure package aims to tackle the digital divide in the United States more directly than ever. The text of the law states that high-speed Internet access is as essential as running water and electricity to “fully participate in modern life in the United States.” The package included US$2.75 billion to fund an effort to improve the online accessibility of social services.

Achieving equitable provision of digital access will depend on implementation. Studies of national broadband efforts in Australia and India show that it’s not always easy. They also find that the programs do not compensate for existing social inequalities. For example, in Australia, poorer communities have worse internet service than wealthier places. In the United States, past broadband initiatives have not provided equitable service.

The Infrastructure Act has the potential to make digital access a higher government priority. But experience shows that fully bridging the digital divide will require much more.

Jessica Cruz, a Rutgers Masters student in public computing, contributed to this article.

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