As more teachers require students to do homework online, students from low-income families often don't have the Internet access to complete their digital work, leaving them at a disadvantage.
That's why senators proposed two amendments to a bill being considered in the Senate to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The act became law in 1965 under President Lyndon B. Johnson and was designed to encourage equal education opportunities for every student, particularly those from low-income families, with the help of federal grants and scholarships.
Schools with more than 40 percent of students who come from low-income families qualify for federal funding under Title I of the act that ties funding to student academic progress.
While this act has been reauthorized three times, the most recent reauthorization happened in 2001 under President George W. Bush, and Congress has been taking its time in tackling it again. But momentum has picked up in the last week as the U.S. House of Representatives passed its version of the reauthorization, and the U.S. Senate is voting on a list of more than 100 amendments to its proposed bill S. 1177, dubbed the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015.
Of that long list of Senate amendments, two of them that are vying for a spot in the final bill deal with the issue of digital equity, which has been an increasingly important topic as school districts incorporate more technology tools into their instruction.
"If we really believe that learning happens anywhere, any place, how do we make sure particularly the kids from low-income families are not put at a disadvantage, especially for doing homework?" asked Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking.
With amendments 2153 and 2154, U.S. Senators Angus King, I-Maine, and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., are trying to make sure that students aren't put at a disadvantage. These are the same senators who introduced the Digital Learning Equity Act of 2015 last month to deal with student access to the Internet outside of school.
Amendment 2153 would establish a federally funded pilot for states or school districts to explore different ways of making sure students from low-income families have access to the Internet outside the classroom. The pilots would focus on schools with high percentages of these low-income students.
Schools have already been experimenting with ways to provide or facilitate home Internet access, including installing Wi-Fi on school buses, placing Internet kiosks in low-income housing spaces and working with businesses that will allow students to use their Internet. These pilots would look for methods that work and can be scaled in schools across the country.
On the other hand, Amendment 2154 would try to pin down exactly how big this Internet access problem is for students from low-income families. The amendment would fund a national study by the Institute of Education Sciences on the state of student access to digital learning resources at home.
This study is important because educators and policymakers don't have much data on student Internet connectivity at home and its effect on their learning, Krueger said. The study would look at the amount of homework that needs to be done online, how lack of access at home affects educators and students, and what works well to address this problem.
"If we're going to do always-on learning," Krueger said, "that means we need to think holistically about how we get learning networks available for all students."