Sens. Look To Spend $4B On 'Homework Gap' Funding Plan

By Christopher Cole
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Law360 (May 12, 2020, 8:46 PM EDT) -- More than half a dozen U.S. Senate Democrats, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., are backing a bill to spend $4 billion on broadband equipment and services that schools and libraries could let students use during the pandemic.

The pool of money would be designated as part of the E-Rate fund for broadband infrastructure run by the Federal Communications Commission, going toward educational use. Written by Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass, the bill is similar to a recent measure filed by Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., in April, but calls for doubling the $2 billion Meng initially proposed.

The money would pay for schools and libraries to obtain devices such as laptops and tablets and to implement measures such as Wi-Fi hotspots and internet service for students' use. The equipment would revert to the schools and libraries at the end of the public health crisis, for use as needed but not to be resold except for upgrade.

Called the Emergency Educational Connections Act, the bill seeks to make sure all K-12 students have adequate home internet connectivity and devices during the coronavirus outbreak, when many schools are closed. The FCC would be required to regulate how the schools and libraries prioritize use of the equipment, and the bill makes clear the funds would be separate from contributions to the FCC's Universal Service Fund.

A version of the plan appears in House Democrats' newly introduced coronavirus relief package, which would reserve $1.5 billion to fund Wi-Fi hotspots for students and library users, as well as an extra $4 billion to tackle the need for emergency at-home internet access.  

That bill, which is set for a House vote Friday, would further allocate $1.5 billion to address immediate connectivity needs among Native American communities.

In the Senate, along with Markey and Schumer, Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.; Michael Bennet, D-Colo.; Maggie Hassan, D-N.H.; and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and 39 more lawmakers on the Democratic side are supporting the educational WiFi bill, almost the full caucus.

According to Markey's office, education groups had originally pegged a $2 billion figure based on the crisis lasting only through this academic year, but the need has only risen with the possibility of longer shutdowns.

"We cannot allow the 'homework gap' to become a larger 'learning gap' during the coronavirus pandemic." Markey said in a statement Wednesday. "Without immediate action by Congress, and $4 billion in E-Rate funding, the students of low-income families, immigrants, communities of color and rural areas are at risk of being left behind."

The senators' action comes as House Democratic leaders ramp up wider efforts to spend federal funds on broadband growth in areas across the country that lack connectivity.

"As the nation battles this pandemic, we have watched family rooms and kitchens become classrooms and computers take the place of blackboards," Schumer said. "During these uncertain times it's imperative that we do not let the education of millions of Americans fall by the wayside."

Cantwell, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, said that "we cannot let this pandemic further the harm the digital divide causes our nation's students."

The Democrats' bill would provide $4 billion in federal support for elementary and secondary schools and libraries, including tribes', to provide Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, internet-enabled devices and service through such equipment.

The measure would let schools and libraries continue to use the equipment after the emergency and ensure that they prioritize support for those most in need, following the guidelines of the E-Rate program.

The Markey proposal has gained significant backing from education advocates, his office said.

All the Senate's Democrats and independents except Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., are signing onto the legislation, according to a list from Markey's office. A Manchin spokesman did not immediately respond to a press inquiry Tuesday.

The GOP majority on the Senate Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the FCC, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Meng's bill on the House side has been referred to the Energy and Commerce Committee.

--Additional reporting by Kelcee Griffis. Editing by Peter Rozovsky.

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