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Ed-Tech Advocates Laud Infrastructure Bill as Milestone

Education policy advocates say the bill provides crucial funding for K-12 Internet access necessary for online learning, which continues to be popular following last year's COVID-19 school closures.

Biden speaks to reporters after reaching deal on infrastructure plan
President Joe Biden speaks to reporters outside the West Wing of the White House following a meeting with a bipartisan group of senators who reached a deal on the infrastructure plan in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, June 24, 2021.
Sarah Silbiger/Pool/TNS
Education policy organizations are celebrating the recent passage of a $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure package signed into law by President Joe Biden which they say represents a major step forward in ongoing efforts to close the K-12 digital divide.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act — passed Nov. 5 by the U.S. House of Representatives after months of tense negotiations — promises $65 billion for broadband expansion projects, with $2.75 billion of that designated for digital inclusion programs that direct families to long-term affordable Internet and reliable devices for digital learning.

Over the course of the pandemic, ed-tech policy groups such as the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) and the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition have clamored for additional federal funding programs devoted to K-12 broadband access and tech needed for virtual and hybrid learning models that have grown in popularity following last year's COVID-19 school closures.

In a statement released this week, SETDA leaders said the bipartisan passage of the bill and its $65 billion for broadband represents a "once-in-a-generation" investment in public schools, and that it will help to address racial and class inequities by connecting millions of K-12 students who lack high-speed Internet for remote online learning.

“People without broadband access are disproportionately Black, Latinx, Indigenous, rural or low-income. Now that the Infrastructure and Jobs Act has been passed, we look forward to continuing this bipartisan conversation to ensure that all students can access technology-empowered learning,” SETDA’s Executive Director Julia Fallon said, adding that “access to affordable Internet isn’t just a digital rights issue — it’s a civil rights issue.”

In an email to Government Technology, Fallon explained that the bill’s state grant formula for broadband deployment, mapping and adoption projects places more emphasis on connecting "unserved and underserved" populations than previous federal efforts in digital equity, such as initiatives using COVID-19 relief funds or the $7 billion from the Federal Communications Commission for K-12 broadband projects.

Fallon said the new funding will serve to connect rural and high-poverty areas where hot spots and connected devices do not meet student needs due to insufficient or nonexistent infrastructure. In addition, she said, the digital inclusion initiative is a new development from federal policymakers to help close the digital divide.

”This is a huge and welcome investment, but also one that is focused on a massive challenge, especially in remote and isolated parts of the country," she said. "More funding will undoubtedly be needed over time to adequately deliver the connectivity households need and to ensure that the connections remain affordable."

Echoing Fallon’s sentiment, CoSN CEO Keith Krueger commended Congress and Biden for approving the bipartisan bill, which the organization says "provides critically needed and long-awaited funding for closing broadband gaps.”

"School districts could not be more pleased by the infrastructure bill's passage," Krueger said in an email to Government Technology. "This investment in broadband access for unconnected and underconnected Americans will pay educational and economic dividends for decades to come. We're grateful for the bipartisan group of federal leaders that recognize high-speed broadband's importance to learning and lifelong success."

John Windhausen Jr., executive director of the SHLB Coalition, said the bill represents progress toward closing the digital divide both inside and outside of K-12 schools, and shows that policymakers have heard the calls coming from schools and organizations such as SHLB, CoSN and SETDA during the pandemic for additional funding to connect students.

“Not only does the legislation include an unparalleled dollar amount for broadband, it also recognizes the important role that community anchor institutions play in making Internet access affordable and available to all," he said. "Anchor institutions are explicitly recognized in the broadband deployment programs and in the Digital Equity Act language that promotes broadband adoption."

The bill is also considered a win by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who called it a "triumph for working people" and children. She said it represents a step forward for the efforts of labor and teachers unions to address other K-12 issues like the need for affordable after-school child care.

"Now, we have the wind at our backs — we are dealing with COVID, adding jobs, and have a second page of history about to be written: child and elder care, pre-K, and climate action in the Build Back Better Act," Weingarten said in a public statement.
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.