October 14, 2020
Education Chiefs Call on Federal Government to #SendTheSignal and End the Digital Divide

Brief outlines innovative strategies to get students connected and explains the need for universal broadband

Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of state and district education leaders, today released #SendTheSignal: A Call for Federal Action to End the Digital Divide. The brief outlines innovative strategies schools are pursuing amid the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure students have a home internet signal so they can keep learning—whether classes take place in person or online. Strategies include, among others, leveraging dark fiber to connect students’ homes to schools’ Wi-Fi networks; partnering with internet service providers to install transmitter-receivers on school rooftops that allow families nearby to obtain an over-the-air internet connection; launching public-private partnerships to create free, citywide Wi-Fi; and collaborating with a nonprofit to treat the internet as an essential service like electricity, heat, and water. Despite these and other approaches, the chiefs say the digital divide is too great a problem for schools to solve on their own.

“Educators should not have to bear the immense burden of getting thousands upon thousands of their students a home internet connection,” the brief states. “The core mission of our schools is to educate children. It is the federal government’s responsibility to act in the public interest when there is a clear and compelling need—as there most certainly is now. The federal government must work with internet service providers and others to create a comprehensive and lasting national solution for universal broadband. If it fails to do so, the current crisis will further harm children and families, exacerbate inequities, and contribute to serious economic decline, effects that would be felt for generations to come.”

Nearly 17 million students across America do not have high-speed internet. The problem disproportionately affects children of color, those from low-income families, and students who are already behind in their learning. As the pandemic wears on, some students have returned to face-to-face instruction, while many others are still attending virtual classes. The brief explains that localized efforts to expand broadband are admirable and have been critical to this point. Without a holistic solution, however, America could end up with a patchwork of initiatives that offer varying degrees of access at best, and that perpetuate historical inequities and threaten the nation’s collective prosperity at worst.

“Education leaders across the country are doing everything we can to get our students connected. Yet I cannot stress this enough: We need the federal government’s help,” said Chiefs for Change Board Chair and San Antonio Independent School District Superintendent Pedro Martinez. “Elected officials on both sides of the aisle have recognized the universal need for reliable internet service. There are many promising ideas. It is time for lawmakers to unite around solutions to end the digital divide once and for all—and to provide the resources for implementing those solutions on a broad scale now. Our students can’t afford to wait.”

The brief highlights connectivity efforts in:

  • Baltimore City Public Schools
  • Boulder Valley School District
  • Chicago Public Schools
  • Cleveland Metropolitan School District
  • Ector County Independent School District
  • Guilford County Schools
  • Highline Public Schools
  • Indianapolis Public Schools
  • Mississippi Department of Education
  • Phoenix Union High School District
  • San Antonio Independent School District
  • The School District of Palm Beach County
  • The School District of Philadelphia

COVID-19 has made clear to the public what those in education have long known about the need for universal internet access. Many Chiefs for Change members advocated for expanded broadband before the coronavirus took hold in the United States. Collectively, the network has been making the case since the early days of the pandemic. Chiefs are sharing their perspectives in conversations and correspondence with the administration and heads of major internet companies; via testimony before congressional committees; and through op-eds, interviews, and social media.