Public education is supposed to be society’s great equalizer; the engine that provides the opportunity for all children, regardless of their race or zip code, to reach their full potential. But years of racism and disinvestment in public schools has left many students of color attending under-resourced, functionally segregated and poor-performing public schools.
As the Covid-19 pandemic has moved public education from the classroom to the living room, another gap has emerged: a technological divide that has further separated low-income children, children of color and people in rural areas from children in wealthier zip codes. As America marks the 66th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court ruling that outlawed legal segregation in public schools, Louisiana leaders need to ensure that all students have equal access to the technology and equipment needed to continue their education while school doors are closed.
According to the 2018 U.S. Census American Community Survey, nearly 150,000 children in Louisiana have no access to high speed internet in their household, and 47,000 have no computer at all. Students of color are the least likely to have any form of broadband access in their household. Only 73% of black and Hispanic school-age children live in a household with some type of access to broadband internet, compared to 78% of white children.
Barriers to access
Families face two main obstacles to internet access: location and affordability. In rural parts of Louisiana, high-speed internet access of any kind is often unavailable regardless of household wealth, because telecom services are limited. For many rural households, dial-up or satellite internet are the only options – neither of which can adequately support streaming content or videoconferencing.
Black households are less likely than their white peers to have access to broadband in any region of the state. But white and black households that reside in rural parishes such as Red River Parish in the northwest or Tensas Parish in the Delta region are significantly less likely to have broadband than their counterparts living in the urban centers of East Baton Rouge, Orleans, or Caddo Parish.
Access would have been less of an obstacle for many rural Louisiana families had Gov. Bobby Jindal administration not bungled an $80 million federal grant in 2011 to expand rural broadband access.
While location is an obstacle for households in certain areas of the state, affordability impacts families regardless of zip code. My internet bill is $55 a month. For a family making minimum wage, that’s a full day of work before taxes.
Families without home broadband access often rely on places with free, public wi-fi such as libraries. But many of those locations have been closed in accordance with stay-at-home orders, leaving low-income students with few options for internet access. These gaps in technology access make it nearly impossible for under-resourced students to keep up with their better-resourced peers.
Computers are key
The digital divide between black and white students is even wider when it comes to computer access. While 87% of white school-age white children have access to a desktop or laptop computer at home, only 65% of black children and 68% of Hispanic children have these resources. And for families with multiple children out of school, even a single computer may not be enough for each child to have adequate access to educational materials.
In fact, black and Hispanic students are more likely to have broadband access at home than they are to have a computer. That may be partly because some telecom companies have affordable rates in the range of $5-$10 a month for families that meet certain qualifications, such as being enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Access Program. But even the cheapest laptops on the market can cost around $100—almost two days worth of work for someone making minimum wage. For too many families, technology costs put at-home learning out of reach.
Long before the pandemic pushed learning from the classroom to a computer screen, far too many low-income students, and students of color, attended schools that lacked the resources needed for academic success. As LBP reported last year, black students are significantly more likely to attend schools with lower teacher retention rates, higher poverty rates, and with fewer teachers certified to teach in their field. While racial inequities have always existed in education, remote learning is only making a bad situation worse. Ultimately, a new laptop and high-speed internet connection is no substitute for a well-funded school with wraparound services.
On this anniversary of Brown v. Board, let’s reflect on the new unequal. High-speed Internet service is no longer a luxury item. It’s a utility just like electricity and water, especially in the middle of a pandemic. As our classrooms become Zoom calls and our parents become teachers, low-income students and students of color are falling behind because of economic barriers completely out of their control. While broadband internet should be readily accessible to every household in the modern age, remote learning should not be in effect any longer than necessary. Remote learning is no substitute for a well-funded school where all children can learn and reach their highest potential.
-Neva Butkus, Policy Analyst