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Huge Win to Connect Kids and Teachers at Home

Thanks to our efforts, the new stimulus package includes more than $7 billion to close the homework gap, but more work lies ahead.

When the pandemic forced 55 million schoolkids to learn from home, Common Sense went into action. We had known for years that millions of kids lacked adequate internet connections and computers at home to do their work, widely known as the homework gap. But it was hard to get Washington to make this a priority. Now, we are thrilled to announce that Congress listened to us, and to you, and just approved more than $7 billion to help ensure that students and teachers have the internet connectivity and devices they need at home to continue learning and teaching.

This is a big deal. But it is not the end of the story.

Common Sense's track record of advocating for tech equity long predates the pandemic. We fought for and won significant new money to ensure all schools are connected to the internet, and we made the digital divide at home an issue. It is a fundamental matter of equity -- economic, educational, and social.

Then the pandemic struck, and it shined an even brighter light on racial and economic inequality in our country, especially in education and the digital divide. The truth is, high-speed internet at home is as important as running water and electricity, and every home and business in the U.S. ought to have an affordable connection. That was true before the pandemic, and it will be true when the crisis is over.

At the start of the pandemic, we launched a coalition of businesses, education organizations, and others to urge lawmakers to connect all students and close the digital divide, now and for good. Educators, parents, and students across the country shared their experiences with us about the challenges of navigating distance learning.

We ran into resistance to making the digital divide a priority in Washington, but we pushed ahead, working with a large coalition of partners. Thanks to support from the Walton Family Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we published three research reports in a period of seven months with Boston Consulting Group and broke through the gridlock. Our new data and analysis were used in negotiations by congressional leaders with the Trump and Biden administrations; were cited by the Federal Communications Commission; and were used by dozens of industry and advocacy coalition partners. First, we established that, before the pandemic, 15 to 16 million students and almost 400,000 teachers lacked adequate connectivity and/or devices at home. We showed that this problem existed in all 50 states but disproportionately affected communities of color and rural communities. Second, we looked at what states were doing to plug the gap during the pandemic. And finally, we concluded that despite recent short-term efforts, 12 million kids were still stuck in the homework gap.

It took too long, as policy changes often do, but we finally got Congress to respond -- and in a big way. The American Rescue Plan, just approved by the House and the Senate, dedicates $7.17 billion to connect students and teachers at home and to purchase the devices they need, like laptops or notebooks. The money will run through the long-standing and highly successful E-rate program that has connected schools and libraries across the country.

This is a big win for kids, but we are not done. We are already at work encouraging Congress and President Biden to pass a national infrastructure plan that will include funding for broadband so that, in the richest country in the world, there is not a home or business left that is not connected to high-speed internet -- once and for all.

Amina Fazlullah

Amina Fazlullah is the Senior Director Equity Policy at Common Sense. Her work focuses on expanding access to technology and digital well-being advocacy. Prior to joining Common Sense, Amina was a Tech Policy Fellow at Mozilla, where she worked to promote broadband connectivity in underserved communities around the world. Amina has also worked with the Benton Foundation, U.S. Public Interest Research Group, for the Honorable Chief Judge James M. Rosenbaum of the U.S. District Court of Minnesota, and at the FCC.