Can School Buses Close the Digital Gap?

Districts are experimenting with ways to get every student access to high-speed Internet. Right now, millions don't.

Take an evening drive through some of the towns that make up the Coachella Valley Unified School District, a largely rural area near the Salton Sea in Riverside County, Calif., and you might be surprised to see yellow school buses parked in odd, uncharacteristic locations. But rest assured, they have a purpose. Equipped with Wi-Fi routers and solar panels, these buses provide Internet to the district’s most underserved communities.

Coachella is one of the poorest school districts in the country: Nearly 80 percent of its students live in poverty, which means many households can’t afford Internet access. That’s why Coachella’s school leaders have turned 100 buses along with several cars into mobile hot spots -- so students can do their homework.

Coachella’s Internet challenges are acute, but the district is far from the only place that has connectivity issues. Nearly 5 million households with school-age children do not have high-speed Internet service, according to the Pew Research Center. Low-income households, especially black and Hispanic ones, make up a disproportionate share of the disconnected households. That’s bad news, especially when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) says seven out of 10 teachers assign homework that requires high-speed Internet access.

To close this so-called homework gap, communities are trying a handful of approaches. This year, Wake County, N.C., announced that it would investigate what Coachella has done to decide whether a similar approach would work in its low-income communities. Several school districts scattered around the country are loaning some students a device that creates an Internet hot spot in their home. In Kent, Wash., the school district has set up Wi-Fi kiosks in community centers located near public housing. And the Forsyth County school system in Georgia has installed nearly 50 Wi-Fi hot spots in public libraries as well as at local businesses (which sponsor the connection), ranging from pastry shops and dentists’ offices to restaurants and barbershops.

While these efforts are creative and helpful, they barely make a dent in the broader problem of digital equity. The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) reports that two-thirds of school system leaders do not have any strategy or plan for providing off-campus connectivity to students. 

But that has to change, says Keith Krueger, the CEO of CoSN. Barring the already unlikely possibility that the FCC will decide to regulate broadband, as it does with electricity, water and phone services, to ensure Internet connectivity is fast and affordable for all, education leaders and local governments are the best bet for closing the homework gap. “Bringing broadband to the home is going to be challenging,” Krueger says, “but it’s going to be settled community by community.” 

Krueger says closing the homework gap will start and end with mayors and school superintendents. They have to begin the conversation and bring the right people together -- philanthropists, business leaders, church leaders -- to make sure Internet reaches the homes of disadvantaged students. “Broadband is the next phase in the fight for equal opportunity when it comes to education,” says Krueger. “Every child should have the opportunity to learn and that requires broadband access.”

Tod is the managing editor of Governing and the contributing editor of our sister publication, Government Technology. He was previously the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for IT executives in the public sector, and is the author of several books on information management.