Warner & Kaine Join Letter to Support Expansion of Internet Access for Students and Educators
WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senators Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine joined a letter led by Senators Ed Markey (D-MA) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Representative Grace Meng (D-NY-6) in support of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s proposal to expand the E-Rate program, which helps schools and libraries access affordable broadband. Under the proposal, the E-Rate program would be updated to allow schools and libraries to loan Wi-Fi hotspots to students and educators. In their letter, the lawmakers call for the expansion and modernization of the E-Rate hotspot program to help reduce educational disparities and ensure that all students can access the internet.
The lawmakers wrote, “[We] are excited that the Commission has proposed to update the E-Rate program to allow schools and libraries to provide Wi-Fi hotspots and wireless internet services to students and educators. This proposal properly recognizes that learning now extends beyond the physical premises of school buildings.”
The lawmakers continued, “With millions of students at risk of losing internet access at home, we are glad to see the FCC exercising this authority and modernizing the E-Rate program, and we encourage the Commission to provide schools and libraries with the flexibility to adapt their programs to local conditions while continuing to effectively guard against fraud and waste.”
Students who lack internet access at home face significant disadvantages in school, and a recent study found they receive lower grades than their classmates. Expanding the E-Rate program will build on the progress made through the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF), which Warner and Kaine helped pass as part of the American Rescue Plan (ARP), to provide devices and connectivity for students and educators at home. With the ECF set to expire at the end of this year and the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) set to run out of funding soon, expanding the E-Rate program would also help prevent many students from losing internet access.
Joining Warner, Kaine, Markey, Van Hollen, and Meng on the letter in the Senate are Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Laphonza Butler (D-CA), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Dick Durbin (D-IL), John Fetterman (D-PA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Mark Kelly (D-AZ), Angus King (I-ME), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Alex Padilla (D-CA), Jack Reed (D-RI), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Tina Smith (D-MN), Raphael Warnock (D-GA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Peter Welch (D-VT), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Ron Wyden (D-OR).
Warner – one of the principal authors of the ACP – and Kaine have long fought to expand access to broadband. The senators urged congressional leadership to extend funding for the ACP, which was created by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) Warner and Kaine helped pass. They also announced nearly $1.5 billion in federal funding to expand high-speed internet through the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program, which was also made possible by the BIL. They’ve introduced bipartisan legislation to ensure that funding for broadband deployment from the BIL and the ARP, will not be considered taxable income.
Full text of the letter is available here and below:
Dear Chairwoman Rosenworcel,
We write in strong support of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) proposal to allow libraries and schools to provide Wi-Fi hotspots and wireless internet services to students and educators through the E-Rate program. This effort represents an important modernization of the E-Rate program and a recognition that learning now extends beyond the school and library premises. As the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated, students without access to the internet at home are at a distinct disadvantage compared to their better-connected peers. We urge the Commission to move ahead with the E-Rate hotspot program to help reduce educational disparities and ensure that low-income students are not left behind.
Although the E-Rate program has successfully connected nearly every school and library in the country, the changing nature of education has reconstituted some of the inequalities that led Congress to create E-Rate in 1998. Back then, better-resourced schools gained internet access ahead of low-income and disadvantaged schools, providing an advantage to their students. Today, that inequality exists among individual households. Now, wealthy and middle-class students almost universally can access high-speed internet at home, but low-income and disadvantaged students lag behind. As schools adopt online resources and homework increasingly requires an internet connection, this “Homework Gap” favors students in wealthy households over their low-income classmates.
If this inequality was not clear before 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic made it obvious. Although the pandemic had serious consequences for students of all backgrounds, low-income students — especially those without access to the internet at home — have faced the greatest impact. In surveys of students at different grade levels, the Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress has repeatedly shown that high-performing students had much better access to the internet at home. A recent study of Michigan students also found that a student without access to home internet earned significantly lower grades — 0.6 lower, on the 4.0 scale — than his or her connected classmates. A different study using Census Bureau data estimated that individuals with greater access to a computer and the internet at home spent 28 percent more hours learning than those without such access. As this evidence on home connectivity piles up, there should be no debate: Students without access to high-speed internet at home are seriously disadvantaged compared to their better-connected classmates.
Fortunately, during the pandemic, the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) — which Congress created in 2021 as part of the American Rescue Plan Act — helped close this homework gap. The ECF program included $7.17 billion for schools and libraries to distribute devices and internet services to students and educators. Thanks to the hard work of the FCC staff, the Commission quickly stood up this program and began distributing these funds. Over the past two years, the ECF has helped roughly 18 million students at 11,500 schools connect to the internet at home. The program has provided nearly 13 million connected devices and more than 8 million broadband connections to students and educators. Unfortunately, the ECF program is set to sunset at the end of June, leaving students — and schools and libraries — in a potentially dire situation: Without action, millions of low-income students could lose access to the internet at home, a devastating digital cliff that would reverse the ECF’s important achievements. The potential expiration of the Affordable Connectivity Program, which helps low-income households afford broadband, would further exacerbate this impact on disadvantaged students.
Given these stakes, we are excited that the Commission has proposed to update the ERate program to allow schools and libraries to provide Wi-Fi hotspots and wireless internet services to students and educators. This proposal properly recognizes that learning now extends beyond the physical premises of school buildings. When a sixth grader is completing a homework assignment through an online educational platform or a ninth grader is attending class through a video conferencing application, they are clearly engaged in educational activities. In the Communications Act, Congress rightfully provided the FCC with the flexibility to structure and strengthen the E-Rate program as educational conditions change. With millions of students at risk of losing internet access at home, we are glad to see the FCC exercising this authority and modernizing the E-Rate program, and we encourage the Commission to provide schools and libraries with the flexibility to adapt their programs to local conditions while continuing to effectively guard against fraud and waste.
Thank you for your continued commitment to closing the digital divide.