In the United States, there is a persistent meritocratic belief that successful people deserve their success by virtue of their hard work and abilities. This assumption is false, based in part on the many educational disparities throughout the country that leave many low-income students falling behind in their education, often leading to worse career and life outcomes.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many American school districts phased out in-person education and implemented remote learning systems in order to continue educating their students safely. Initially, this decision seemed logical, but it quickly became apparent that many students—particularly those of a lower socioeconomic status and those of color—were falling behind due to a lack of internet and computer access at home. Some students were forced to conduct their remote learning from cellphones in the parking lots of a McDonald’s, and others simply did not participate. So, what could have been done to avoid this disaster?
Before the pandemic made home internet a requirement for K-12 education, many Americans viewed internet and computer access as a privilege that one could do without. This view must now change in order to address existing inequalities. In our modern and globalized world, internet and computer access are ubiquitous and essential to the continued success of every student—both while pursuing their education and beyond. Thus, both internet and computer access should be regarded as a utility that must be provided for all students and families who cannot afford them.
While some students have had access to resources like private educators and quiet homes with broadband access, others use old computers on slow hotspots that may be disconnected at any time. Due to these unchecked gaps in education, the American meritocracy is inherently biased. Providing internet access and devices to low-income students is a sound way to increase educational equity for students who have been previously left behind.
Additionally, by viewing access to these resources as a right and providing them for those in need, low-income families can better allocate scarce resources. Before the pandemic, many families already struggled with affording rent, utilities, groceries, and other basic necessities; this issue has worsened in the last year. With the prevalence of remote learning (which will likely persist in some capacity in a post-COVID world), families must purchase expensive devices (sometimes for multiple children) and reliable broadband internet to allow their children to have a chance at success.
If these devices and internet access were given to struggling families, many low-income parents would be better positioned to take care of their finances and their children. Similar discourse is what brought us the National School Lunch Act of 1946, which continues to provide children of a lower socioeconomic status with free or low cost meals. This act successfully supplies children with the calories needed to succeed at school while allowing the parents of these children to spend that money on other necessities. There’s no reason why home internet and computer access cannot be viewed in the same light.
Since the beginning of COVID-19, many schools have eventually stepped in to provide options for low-income families. Some schools outfitted busses with hotspots and parked them in struggling neighborhoods, while others allowed students to utilize school Wi-Fi in their parking lots. And in some districts, school officials used their budgets to purchase devices for students or provide them with home internet access.
However, none of these options are efficient or scalable throughout the country. What is scalable is the expansion of an FCC program that subsidizes internet service for schools and libraries to include home internet access for students.
In the beginning of the pandemic, then FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai informed schools that this funding could only be used to provide internet service on their school campuses. This decision was condemned by the FCC Commissioner, Jessica Rosenworcell who accused the commission of failing to act during “a national crisis.”
It’s imperative that our leadership alter their view that the internet and electronic devices are a privilege, rather than a right. By ensuring that low-income students in America have access to these resources, we guarantee that more children have a meaningful path to achieve the American dream and an opportunity to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. Furthermore, a better educated generation of Americans means higher tax contributions in the future, as well as many more positive externalities.