Two legislators want to bridge the digital divide while ensuring no child is left behind.
Sens. Angus King, I-Maine, and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.V., have proposed two educational technology amendments to the No Child Left Behind reauthorization bill, currently being debated this week in the Senate.
The House passed its version of the rewrite, called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, on Wednesday night. It would eliminate the current accountability system for schools and allow states to create their own measures for performance. It would also prevent the Department of Education from requiring states to adopt new, more rigorous Common Core standards.
Now, the focus returns to the Senate as legislators attempt the first update of the law since 2007.
The amendments King and Capito have proposed focus on closing the so-called “homework gap” by giving more kids in poor and rural areas high-speed Internet access for use outside of school.
The two senators also introduced a bill that focused on the same issues, called the Digital Equity Act, last month.
One of the amendments calls for the Institute of Education Sciences to conduct the first-ever comprehensive, national study on student access to digital learning resources outside of school.
The study would need to specify how homeless students, children in foster care and students in urban, suburban and rural areas who lack Internet access at home fare in school.
“There’s not very good data on school-age kids who are not connected (after school), and what this actually means for them – if they’re engaged in the classroom, if they can get their work done,” Aisha Woodward, legislative assistant to King, told FedScoop.
The other amendment, called the Digital Learning Equity Demonstration Program, would offer grants to eligible districts and schools to develop and use “innovative strategies to increase out-of-school Internet access” for students.
In West Virginia, the rural landscape makes lack of connectivity a persistent problem.
“While many of the schools are connected, when kids try to go home and do their homework, it becomes increasingly difficult to do that,” said Ashley Berrang, communications director for Capito.
The amendment calls for the education secretary to allocate 35% or more of the federal funds to schools in rural areas.
Applicants must describe how they will integrate technology use outside of school walls with the curriculum during the day, and how they will provide students with training to use computers and tablets.
They are also encouraged to partner with businesses or local nonprofits and organizations. For example, schools in a rural part of eastern Maine partnered with a local library that offered mobile hotspots to kids, the type of program the senators want to see replicated across the country.
The amendment would be different from another one included in the proposed rewrite, called ITECH, which would dole out educational technology grants to states – to be used inside the classroom and for professional development for teachers.
“It’s classroom-focused,” Woodward said of the ITECH program. The other amendment, she said, “is really for connecting kids outside of the school day.”
The Federal Communications Commission has made access to the Internet outside of school for low-income families a priority, with a planned update to the Lifeline program to absorb some of the costs of broadband along with wireless and wired phone service.
But the proposed amendment warns that funds should not be mixed with E-Rate money, which is allocated by the FCC for schools that need to upgrade their network and infrastructure.
“Funds awarded under this part shall only be used to promote out-of-school access … and shall not be used to address the networking needs of a (school) that is eligible to receive support under the E-Rate program,” the bill states.
Education technology advocates said the amendments are crucial components of the No Child Left Behind reauthorization.
“Student learning is no longer confined to inside school walls and doors,” said Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking. “The sad reality is that students from low-income families do not have the same level of digital access and connectivity as others. This prevents them from fully experiencing and benefitting from always-on learning.”
Krueger added that the amendments help “ensure all students have access to high-capacity broadband outside of school – and particularly at home.”
The Senate has not yet debated these amendments, which are among about 29 that senators have put forward. They range from addressing issues around bullying to Title I funding allocation.
Similar to the House bill, the Senate’s rewrite would get rid of the adequate yearly progress accountability system, and give states more control. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, along with dozens of civil rights groups, have repeatedly bashed the bill since it would essentially strip the federal agency of power over local districts.
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