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King, Capito, Welch, McKinley Send Letter to Department of Education Urging More Research on Homework Gap

June 29, 2018
Press Release
Bipartisan Members of Congress ask for further study into the disadvantage facing students from rural or low-income parts of the country who lack necessary broadband access.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senators Angus King (I-Maine) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.), along with Representatives Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and David McKinley (R-W.V.) sent a letter requesting that the Department of Education continue to study strategies to close the homework gap for school-age children lacking broadband access outside of the classroom in order to fully complete the research that Congress required in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This letter comes after an April report from the Department of Education that addresses some, but not all, of the research required by ESSA.

“The homework gap is one of the most pressing education and workforce issues we face today, and is particularly prevalent in rural and lower-income areas where students are already at a greater risk of being left behind in today’s digital world,” the Members of Congress wrote. “Based on our review of this report, we believe that states and localities could benefit significantly from the Department performing additional, actionable research that will assist them in pinpointing specific geographic or socio-economic homework gap pockets. This would provide state and local entities with the granular knowledge and data they need to move forward with closing these gaps and ameliorating these disparities.”

Following a push from King and Capito, co-chairs of the Senate Broadband Caucus, the Department of Education completed the original report entitled Student Access to Digital Learning Resources Outside the Classroom. The report finds that in 2015, 80 percent of 8th-graders across the country reported using a computer for schoolwork on a weekday. Further data in the report shows that students 5 to 17 years old were most likely to live in households that subscribe to fixed broadband if they live in suburbs and least likely if they live in rural areas. Additionally, students 5 to 17 years old were least likely to live in households that subscribe to fixed broadband if they lived in lower-income households and most likely if they lived in upper-income households. The cost of broadband was tied for the top reason that households cited for not having an internet subscription. The report builds on the Digital Learning Equity Act, bipartisan legislation that Senators King and Capito introduced to improve student access to the internet and close the digital divide.

Section 9210 of ESSA, which was enacted in 2015 to reauthorize  the federal law governing K-12 education, requires the Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences to publish a study on the educational impact of access to digital learning resources – such as computers and broadband internet – outside of the classroom. Senators King and Capito and Representatives Welch and McKinley advocated for the inclusion of this section in ESSA, which was based in part on Section 3 of the Digital Learning Equity Act. The Senators and Representatives have continued to support improvements to broadband and digital learning access through their leadership of the Senate Broadband Caucus and House Rural Broadband Caucus and by advocating for improvements to related programs at the Federal Communications Commission, USDA, and Department of Education.

Connectivity in rural regions is a key part of Senator King’s economic agenda to help grow Maine’s rural economy, support innovation and create jobs. During his time in office, Senator King has supported the modernization of federal broadband programs, including the FCC’s E-rate program, which supports school and library internet access. Last August, he hosted a listening tour with FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel to discuss the importance of rural broadband for rural education, healthcare, and economic growth. Senators King and Capito also successfully advanced bipartisan federal legislation in 2015 to support innovative strategies to connect rural students to the internet outside of the classroom, and wrote a letter to then-Education Secretary John King in April 2016 urging that he implement the changes.

Full text of the letter is available HERE and below.

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Dear Secretary DeVos:

We write today to express our appreciation for the Department’s completion of the Every Student Succeeds Act-mandated study on the homework gap, entitled Student Access to Digital Learning Resources Outside the Classroom. The homework gap is one of the most pressing education and workforce issues we face today, and is particularly prevalent in rural and lower-income areas where students are already at a greater risk of being left behind in today’s digital world.

The report showed plainly that while the nation as a whole has made important strides in connecting students in their homes, more work remains to be done to close the digital divide. In particular, we note that the study revealed that, as of 2015, 19% of children overall lacked home Internet access, with black, Hispanic and American Indian/Alaska Native children lagging behind their white peers significantly. The report also found that students residing in remote and rural areas faced significant homework gap obstacles, citing studies that found that 35% of student homes in those areas lacked fixed broadband. While these and other numbers that the report provides may have improved in the past few years, it is highly likely that significant home connectivity gaps and disparities remain.

Based on our review of this report, we believe that states and localities could benefit significantly from the Department performing additional, actionable research that will assist them in pinpointing specific geographic or socio-economic homework gap pockets. This would provide state and local entities with the granular knowledge and data they need to move forward with closing these gaps and ameliorating these disparities. Specifically, we urge that the Department conduct new research that seeks up-to-date data that:

  1. Illustrates how the barriers and challenges that students who lack home internet access face impact the instructional practice of educators.
  2. Updates the current report’s reasoning for school-aged children having no or limited access to fixed or mobile wireless service. While the report addressed some causes, such as affordability and availability, policymakers require continuous data on those reasons and how they can be addressed.
  3. Determines for school-age children with limited access what broadband speeds they are utilizing and assesses whether those speeds are sufficient to satisfy online and digital education needs.
  4. Determines whether, and if so where, states, counties, cities or school districts offer programs to connect to broadband unserved and underserved students, including wi-fi on school buses and hotspot lending programs. Identifying the types of programs used, the number of students served, and the costs incurred to operate such programs would also be useful information.

We appreciate your efforts in solving once and for all the homework gap and look forward to working with you on this most important matter. We hope that the forthcoming Fast Response Survey System 109 survey will answer some of these remaining questions and that the Department will continue to undertake further research until it has fully investigated the topics outlined in section 9210 of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

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