As New School Year Begins, Cantwell, Murray, Colleagues Demand Urgent Action by FCC to Connect Students to Online Learning
16% of families with children in Washington state lack broadband access; as many as 16 million children across US can’t access internet at home
WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, and Patty Murray (D-WA), the Ranking Member on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, joined 36 of their colleagues this week in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) urging the agency to utilize the E-Rate program to provide internet connectivity to students at home immediately.
“The FCC has clear authority and available funding under the E-Rate program to start connecting students immediately,” the senators wrote in their letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “The E-Rate is, and has been for over two decades, an essential source of funding to connect the nation’s schools and libraries to the internet. Although you have previously asserted otherwise based on your narrow interpretation of the law, the statute authorizing E-Rate does not preclude the FCC from expanding this program to fund connections at students’ homes — which, because schools have had to close their doors, have become de facto classrooms for millions of children.”
While students across the country are increasingly attending virtual classes due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, as many as 16 million children in the United States—a disproportionate number from communities of color, low-income households, and rural areas—lack internet access at home. In Washington state, according to the AP, 16 percent of families with children have no access to broadband.
Across the country, there are significant racial and socioeconomic disparities when it comes to broadband connectivity. 25 percent of African American homes with school-aged children, and 23 percent of Hispanic homes with school-aged children, do not have access to high-speed internet at home. Overall, 35 percent of households with school-aged children and annual incomes below $30,000 do not have access to high-speed internet at home. According to report issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in May 2019, less than half of housing units in rural Indian Country have access to broadband service.
“The FCC has the power to help mitigate the impact of the coronavirus on our most vulnerable families. We now urge you in the strongest possible terms to utilize this authority to provide internet connectivity and devices for children in need,” the senators concluded.
Senators Cantwell and Murray are also cosponsors of the Emergency Educational Connections Act, legislation that would appropriate $4 billion to be delivered through the E-Rate program to ensure all K-12 students have adequate home internet connectivity and devices during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Senator Murray is also the author of the Digital Equity Act, legislation that would help ensure people have the tools, support, and technologies necessary to take full advantage of a broadband connection. In March, both Senators Cantwell and Murray urged the FCC to use its existing authority and programs to aid in the coronavirus response and facilitate at-home connectivity for students to keep up with remote schoolwork. Senator Cantwell repeated that call for swift action by the FCC in an oversight hearing in the Senate Commerce Committee in June, saying the FCC has a responsibility to make “sure millions of children caught in the gap of not being able to do their homework don’t fall further behind. So I am looking for emergency orders by the Commission [to address this gap]. And yet, nothing has happened.”
Joining Cantwell and Murray in the letter to FCC Chairman Pai were U.S. Senators Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Tom Udall (D-NM), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Jack Reed (D-RI), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Angus King (I-ME), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Gary Peters (D-MI), Tina Smith (D-MN), Bob Casey, Jr, (D-PA), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).
The full text of the letter is available below and HERE.
Dear Chairman Pai:
As a new school year begins, students across the country are increasingly returning to virtual classrooms due to the coronavirus pandemic. Yet, studies indicate that as many as 16 million children in the United States lack internet access at home and are unable to participate in online learning. These students are disproportionally from communities of color, low-income households, and rural areas. Without urgent action by the Federal Communications Commission
(FCC), we are deeply concerned that they will fall further behind in their studies. The current emergency demands that you take immediate action to help our nation’s most vulnerable children. We specifically call on you to utilize the E-Rate program to close this “homework gap without further delay.
The FCC has clear authority and available funding under the E-Rate program to start connecting students immediately. The E-Rate is, and has been for over two decades, an essential source of funding to connect the nation’s schools and libraries to the internet. Although you have previously asserted otherwise based on your narrow interpretation of the law, the statute authorizing E-Rate does not preclude the FCC from expanding this program to fund connections at students’ homes — which, because schools have had to close their doors, have become de facto classrooms for millions of children. Indeed, previous Commissions have interpreted the statute as allowing them to make changes to the E-Rate program in response to emergencies. We urge you to adopt a similarly expansive view in light of the current crisis.
Moreover, we are not alone in believing that the FCC can and must act under its existing authority. Earlier this month, the state of Colorado filed a petition with the FCC seeking an emergency waiver of E-Rate rules to allow schools to extend their broadband network connectivity to students’ homes for online learning. In August, the U.S. Department of the
Interior similarly requested that the FCC update its interpretation of what constitutes a school campus under the E-Rate program in order to allow funding to support virtual classrooms.5 As schools across the country continue to rely on remote learning for the duration of this pandemic, we believe that the nationwide demand for E-Rate funding will only grow.
We have also recognized the need for Congress to address the growing learning gap across America. We have all cosponsored the Emergency Educational Connections Act, legislation that would appropriate at least $4 billion to be delivered through the E-Rate program to equip students with internet connectivity and devices during the ongoing pandemic. We are fighting to ensure that Congress enacts this legislation to include more funding for students learning at home through the E-Rate as part of the next coronavirus relief package. We urge you to support our efforts on Capitol Hill. However, the FCC need not — and should not — wait for Congress to act. Although our legislation will provide needed resources to finish the job, the FCC can today begin to connect students immediately.
Providing more funding through the E-Rate, as opposed to setting up a new program, is the best way to help students continue their education at home. The E-Rate program is, and has been for over twenty years, an important source of funding to connect the nation’s schools and libraries to the internet. As a result, community institutions across the United States already trust and are involved with the program, which should ensure that any distribution of new resources through
E-Rate will proceed without bureaucratic delay. Additionally, the E-Rate program is deliberately designed to require an equitable distribution of resources according to students’ needs, making sure that those families most affected by the homework gap will receive the support they require during this emergency.
The FCC has the power to help mitigate the impact of the coronavirus on our most vulnerable families. We now urge you in the strongest possible terms to utilize this authority to provide internet connectivity and devices for children in need. School bells across the country have started to ring, but without immediate action, many students are at risk of never making it to class.
Thank you for your attention to this important matter. We respectfully request your response by October 1, 2020. Due to the telework policies of many Senate offices during the coronavirus pandemic, physical signatures are unavailable. The listed senators have asked to be signatories to this letter.
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