Statement from Common Sense and James P. Steyer Regarding Congress’ Emergency COVID Relief Bill Agreement

Common Sense Media
Monday, December 21, 2020

San Francisco, CA (December 21, 2020) -- Common Sense Founder and CEO, James P. Steyer, issued the following statement in reaction to the agreement reached in Congress on a $900 billion emergency bill in response to the coronavirus pandemic that is expected to be approved tonight:

"Congress' emergency COVID relief agreement is much needed and will provide critical support to schools, hungry children, families at risk of being evicted, and unemployed Americans, among many other important provisions in the deal. But make no mistake, this package falls far short of what is needed during this crisis. Despite its shortcoming, it deserves approval, but then Congress and the Biden Administration should begin in January to continue to provide the additional assistance America's kids and families need.

"With regard to the deal's provision on broadband, it cannot be overstated that the Homework Gap has existed for decades, it still exists, and while this agreement makes progress, it doesn't come close to eliminating the gap. To ensure resilient access to education, during the pandemic and over the long-term, the government must guarantee access to universal affordable broadband service and devices capable of meeting distance learning needs. While this emergency deal provides critical funding that Common Sense has long supported, for low-income households, tribal lands, and rural areas, it leaves too many kids in the Homework Gap. Congress must do more in 2021 to guarantee the broadband services and computer devices our schools and homes need if we want all kids to have the opportunity to succeed."

BACKGROUND on the broadband section of the emergency COVID agreement
Congress' COVID emergency relief agreement is reported to include $7 billion related to broadband. There is $3.2 billion to help millions of low-income Americans pay for broadband internet at home, in the form of a $50/month subsidy per eligible household to pay for service and devices. In addition, there is $1.5 billion to expand broadband access on tribal lands, $300 million to expand broadband in underserved areas, $285 to develop an Office of Minority Broadband Initiatives, $250 million for additional telehealth services, and $65 million to finish the job of broadband mapping. Common Sense supports all of these provisions. The deal also includes $2 billion to "rip and replace" existing broadband that have components controlled by the Chinese corporation Huawei.

Many of these provisions will offer some help to families that have school-aged children who need home access to broadband and devices capable of meeting their distance learning needs. But the agreement does not provide sufficient support directly to student populations. In May, the House but not the Senate passed the HEROES Act, and in September the House but not the Senate passed a more generous HEROES Act, both of which provided not only the emergency broadband subsidy included in this weekend's agreement but also direct support for connectivity and devices to some of the 16 million k-12 students and nearly 400,000 teachers who lack them, using the highly successful federal E-Rate program. And a bi-partisan agreement in early December also included direct funding for the Homework Gap through E-Rate. The agreement reached this weekend does not include the Homework Gap section because Congress and the Trump Administration's outgoing FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, remained divided over making this a priority. Chairman Pai regrettably has opposed using the FCC's existing authority or adding new authority to ensure students and teachers get this critical support.

BACKGROUND on Common Sense and the Student Digital Divide
Common Sense is a national leader in the effort to close the digital divide - the gap between those who have broadband at home and those who do not - with a particular focus on students and teachers because the Homework Gap, as it is known, contributes to learning loss and lost economic opportunity in households that already experience significant inequity. COVID exposed long-standing inequalities, none more so than in educational opportunity. The huge gap between kids living in homes that lack adequate internet and computer devices to conduct distance learning has been one of our central challenges for years but especially so during the pandemic with so many schools closed and the reality of learning loss setting in.

In June, Common Sense and Boston Consulting Group released a groundbreaking report showing that an estimated 16 million students (and 400,000 teachers) are caught in the digital divide, and our analysis found that it will cost up to $11 billion dollars to close the divide for students (plus $1 billion for teachers) in the first year. Our report recommended that Congress use the long-standing E-Rate program to close the digital divide for students at home as an emergency measure during the pandemic. In October, we released a second report detailing the robust work of states and school districts to build systems to deliver support for distance learning. However, only partial progress has been made and without adequate funding directly committed to keeping kids out of the digital divide these efforts are at risk of stalling or reversing.


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