At the middle-class, suburban high school that I attended in the late ’90s, there were enough supplies for every kid. Each student preparing for, say, the tenth-grade Global Studies Regents Exam, had a textbook and could take it home to spend hours memorizing the facts required to pass the test.
At the Brooklyn high school where I taught a half-decade later that served a lower-income community, the budget did not allow for nearly enough Global Studies books. Students had to share them, and teachers earning less than $40,000 per year had to use our own money to make copies for everyone else. I wish I had data on how our kids fared on the Regents, but I can tell you that it wasn’t pretty. Many of the highest-performing students failed, and it wasn’t their fault; how could they know which countries Genghis Khan invaded when they didn’t have the book that told them?
A decade after I left teaching, internet access has become another essential tool for education — and now, President Trump’s Federal Communications Commission has made it more difficult for schools to afford broadband services. It’s the same raw deal as ever for struggling school districts, updated for the digital age.
On Thursday morning, the FCC voted to deregulate the $45 billion Business Data Services market, removing price caps on business-to-business broadband sales. There had been a limit on what companies like Verizon and AT&T could charge for so-called “special access lines.” The price caps were designed to keep phone and, later, broadband, access cheap for community institutions like schools, hospitals, libraries, and small businesses. Now, there will be no limit. A spokesperson for the trade association Incompas, which advocates for competition among communications providers, told The Outline that the increase is expected to be at least 25 percent across the board.
Low-income schools already don’t have enough money; according to a report last year in The Atlantic, schools in high-poverty districts, where the property taxes are lower, spend 15.6 percent less per student than schools in low-poverty districts. If internet costs go up by 25 percent, it may make more sense to cut that budget item, or, for schools that still don’t have internet, never add it at all. Add it to the list of things that well-funded schools in already-rich neighborhoods get that schools in low-income neighborhoods don’t. New textbooks. Gyms. Advanced Placement classes that let students earn college credits. Computers. Internet access.
Familiarity with the internet is essential for success in college, the job market, and modern social life. Imagine not knowing how to use the internet for research, or being unable to tell the difference between false stories and news from reputable sources ― something even privileged kids have trouble with. Or say a high school grad skips college and goes directly into the job market. Would they be ready to navigate online job postings? Would they remember to clean up their Facebook pages before they’re seen by potential employers? It’s likely that kids would find some way to get online, but low-income Americans already rely disproportionately on schools and libraries for internet access. According to the Pew Research Center, approximately three in ten adults with household incomes of less than $30,000 per year do not own smartphones — and so, by extension, their children don’t have access to the devices, either. Almost half of American homes at that income level do not have broadband services or a personal computer.
The problem isn’t that internet is essential for a modern education, although there is an argument to be made that it is ― many teachers now use programs like Blackboard, for example, to coordinate homework, group discussions, and engage with their students’ parents. Instead, it’s that this move will reinforce the inequality that exists in public schools in so many other ways.
It’s the same raw deal as ever for struggling school districts, updated for the digital age
Trump’s appointment to head the FCC, Ajit Pai, pushed for the deregulation. Three years ago, in what now seems like a very different time, President Obama took steps in the opposite direction. His administration announced a plan to get internet access at 99 percent of schools within five years as a way to help with inequality. At the time, although 99 percent of schools had some kind of connection to the web, less than 40 percent had access to high speed internet, Obama said. By 2015, that number was up to 59 percent, according to one report. The chief obstacle to getting everyone wired? Price.