The Technology 202: Congressional fight over funding for digital learning could leave behind as many as 15 million kids

Democrats want to include $4 billion in funding specifically dedicated to virtual learning needs. Funds in their plan would be distributed through the Federal Communications Commission’s E-Rate program that helps schools and libraries obtain affordable broadband access. The House version of the next relief package was approved with $1.5 billion in funding for WiFi hotspots, connected devices and other telecommunications services to schools and libraries.

More than four dozen education advocacy and Internet rights groups including the National Education Assocation have signed on to support the Democratic bill and have been pushing members of the Senate to include it in the final relief package.

Republicans have proposed $70 billion in overall funding for K-12 education, a pot of money they say recipients could also use for virtual learning. 

However, the bill misses the mark and falls far short of the needs facing our nation’s schools, 16 education groups including the School Superintendents Association and National Education Association wrote in a letter to Senate leadership on Thursday. 

The coronavirus disrupted the education of more than 50 million public school students in the United States earlier this year. Schools were forced to grapple with the hurdles of moving students online without much warning. In some areas, where the number of students lacking Internet access reaches nearly 40 percent, attendance rates plummeted. School districts scrambled to provide equipment such as WiFi hotspots and loaner laptops to students who needed them.

Without federal funding, many school districts will face the same challenges this fall.

“Without dedicated funding to address students having Internet access at home there is no guarantee that we can provide Internet access to students,” said Corey Williams, a federal lobbyist for the National Education Association.

The pandemic problem is an extension of an ongoing challenge known among education activists as the “homework gap” affecting students who don’t have access to the Internet after school, preventing them from completing daily assignments.

Nearly one in five students between kindergarten and 12th grade don’t have the devices or Internet they need to do homework, according to data compiled by the Pew Research Center in 2018. Common Sense Media, a nonprofit advocacy group focused on children and media, puts the number at closer to 16 million, or 30 percent of public school students in grades K-12 and 10 percent of public school teachers, or about 300,000 to 400,00 people.

The inequities in access disproportionately affect rural and minority students.

The pandemic has widened the gap beyond homework to all learning.

We’re discovering it’s a bigger gap than we thought it was and it’s a bigger crisis than we thought it was, said FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat who has pushed for the FCC to use E-Rate to address the problem.

But there’s disagreement within the FCC over how to fund virtual education.

Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has maintained that the law that established the E-Rate program only allows for “classroom” funding, a position an FCC spokesperson reiterated in a statement to The Post.

“Chairman Pai has specifically and repeatedly called on Congress to establish and fund a remote learning initiative so that more students can get connected and remain online,” an FCC spokesperson said in a statement. “He remains hopeful that Congress will heed his call before the new semester begins.”

Rosenworcel says that E-Rate previously has been used for virtual learning and in disaster situations. In 2011 the agency piloted an on-the-go wireless learning program through E-Rate. It also gave schools emergency assistance through E-Rate during natural disasters such as hurricanes Irma, Maria and Harvey.

“We know millions of students do not have access to reliable Internet and that means for them the digital classroom is locked,” Rosenworcel said. “It’s crazy for us to not take action right now to help prevent that problem. There are steps we can take to make sure every child is connected and has a fair shot of making it to school online.”

Education advocates have expressed concerns about developing a new program to distribute the funds.

Critics say the agency’s distribution of $200 million allocated in the March coronavirus relief bill for telehealth provides a “cautionary tale” against starting a virtual education program from scratch. Doing so required the FCC to assign 40 staff members to the program and it still took months to distribute funds. Hawaii, Montana, and Alaska  all states with notable gaps in accessible Internet  received no funding at all.

The lack of transparency sparked criticism from members of Congress from both parties. Three Democrats and one Republican lawmaker wrote a letter to Pai last month accusing the agency of failing to provide sufficient information about how the funds were distributed and choosing “speed over transparency and fairness with regard to review applications.”

Pai’s office declined to provide any details on how the agency’s virtual learning funding program would work or comment on the 2011 pilot.

The number of challenges facing administrators and educators and parents and students as they head into the fall is enormous, Williams said. The last thing they need is another new program.

Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director of advocacy and governance for the School Superintendents Association, said the superintendents she represents have expressed similar concerns about an E-Rate alternative.

Failure of Congress to reach a deal could put students and teachers at risk.

School districts could be forced to choose between personal protective equipment and sanitation supplies for teachers or digital access for students, a scenario in which PPE will win out, Williams said. Families given a choice between in-person and virtual schooling won’t have one if they aren’t connected.

Where there’s no money dedicated to homework gap, [superintendents] might have to cut from their local budgets; they might have to cut staff, they might have to cut additional programs, Ng said.

Our top tabs

Microsoft will continue talks to buy TikTok after discussions with President Trump.

Microsoft’s chief executive Satya Nadella spoke with Trump over the weekend about the company’s discussions to buy TikTok’s U.S. assets from its Chinese parent company, Rachel Lerman reports. Microsoft stressed in a blog post that it was committed to addressing Trump’s concerns about the social media platform.

Trump previously told reporters he favored banning the app, which he has accused of sharing U.S. user data with the Chinese government, over a deal that would allow a U.S. company to buy off the U.S. part of the business from ByteDance. (TikTok denies sharing any data with the Chinese government.)

Some Republican lawmakers who have raised red flags about the app also support a sale over a full ban.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who first asked for the Treasury Department-led review of TikTok’s potential threat to national security, called a sale “an acceptable outcome.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)

But Trump’s crackdown on Chinese technology could reach well beyond TikTok.

The president will “take action in the coming days with respect to a broad array of national security risks that are presented by software connected to the Chinese Communist Party,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News yesterday. He cited TikTok, WeChat and countless other Chinese-owned apps, which he said are “feeding data directly to the Chinese Communist Party.”

Coronavirus cases are surging in the Bay Area. 

Tech recruiter Natalie Duvalsaint says the spike in cases is worrying, but she’s also concerned about the toll of the pandemic on people’s mental health. “We need to shelter in place and [practice] social distancing, but what about people with mental-health issues?” she said. “I’m very extroverted, and I get kind of down if I don’t see people for a week and a half.”

The spike in cases is a reversal in the area’s early success in keeping numbers down by enacting some of the earliest sheltering-in-place measures in the country.

“What it bought us was 3½ months of relative calm, relatively few cases, astoundingly few deaths, and an opportunity to build up capacity,” said Robert Wachter, chair of the University of California at San Francisco’s department of medicine. “What it also bought us was a little bit of complacency.”

Essential workers who have been hit hardest by the resurgence have also seen more residents return to their normal lives.

“What’s scary about now is no one is scared anymore, everyone is relaxed,” said Felix Castillo, a bus operator for San Francisco’s MUNI public transit system. 

Cases in the Bay Area are still low compared to hot spots such as Los Angeles and Miami, but officials say next steps are critical to preventing a more dramatic spike. Some cities in the region including San Francisco have begun to pause business reopenings.

Rant and rave

What would a Microsoft-owned TikTok look like? Stanford Internet Observatory Director Alex Stamos imagines:

The digital race to 2020

Facebook is considering new rules about “premature” election results claims.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg did not specify what the rules might limit, but he told the New York Times’s Ben Smith the site was planning to educate users that “there’s a high likelihood that it takes days or weeks to count this — and there’s nothing wrong or illegitimate about that.” 

The company recently decided to start labeling posts about voting with a link to information about voting, though critics say the company hasn’t gone far enough to address Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that mail-in voting leads to rampant fraud.

Inside the industry

A developer accused Google of booting its app from the Play Store in retaliation for cooperating with House lawmakers.

The founders of Blix, which runs the “BlueMail” app, says that Google pulled their product without notice on Friday, Reed Albergotti reports.  

Google reinstated the app Friday and denied claims that the removal was related to Blix’s founders working with the House antitrust subcommittee on its investigation into Google. 

But the removal highlights the deep tension between Google and developers who say that the tech giant wields too much control. 

“Google either suspended BlueMail because we helped the House antitrust subcommittee prepare for the hearings or because Google just launched a competitor to Blix,” said Dan Volach, who co-founded the company with his brother. 

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  • The Senate Commerce Committee will hold an oversight hearing about the Federal Trade Commission on Wednesday at 10 a.m.

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