Voices in Education

If Miguel Cardona Cares about All Students, Urban and Rural, He and President Biden Must Make Universal Broadband the #1 Priority
The next US Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, faces enormous challenges. Not only does Cardona have to address educational inequality at a time of unprecedented interruptions in schooling, but he also takes leadership when our country is facing large divides between urban and rural communities. The United States has educational reform traditions, policies, and entrenched practices that focus so squarely on urban schools, that urban has become almost synonymous with educational improvement efforts. But if Cardona cares about equality and national unity, he must begin to pay greater attention to our rural schools, and the more than thirteen million students who attend them. We have a simple recommendation that can help address both of these issues: partner with President Joe Biden to make universal broadband a top priority of the new administration.

We are practitioners and researchers who live in a coal-employing community in rural Appalachia. We were also teachers on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico and were raised in rural communities on the Iron Range in Northern Minnesota and in Eastern Kentucky, respectively. Before the pandemic hit, rural educators already faced unique challenges in serving students. Rural students, particularly rural students of color and rural students with disabilities, are vastly underrepresented in our empirical knowledge base. When choosing evidence-based practices, rural educators must pick programs that are often only proven in urban communities and must hope that they address their needs. Title I funds are typically the biggest source of discretionary spending for schools serving children in poverty, but the formula for distribution of funds uses number weighting that has been shown to systematically underfund rural schools because it emphasizes the number of children in poverty, not the proportion. Not to mention, accountability measures can lead to frustration when rural schools do not have the number of students needed to make testing reliable from year to year.

But of all of these issues, perhaps none is a bigger handicap than lack of access to broadband. The bottom line is that more than ten million rural Americans lack access to internet speeds needed to stream videos, which are increasingly becoming a core component in twenty-first-century education. It is no surprise, then, that a recent survey found almost a quarter of rural adults identified high-speed internet service as a “major problem” in their community. Just how important this gap is for education came into clear view when the coronavirus pandemic closed schools and the most expedient way to deliver content was through the internet. Many rural schools were forced to improvise, knowing that their students would not have access to the internet at all or internet speeds required for any kind of learning.

Our two children attend a Title I school that serves three-year-olds in preschool through teenagers in twelfth grade in one building. When school shutdowns began last March, we got a front-row seat to the unique challenges faced by rural schools as they attempted to migrate to virtual schooling. Like many small rural schools, the staff wears many hats, and there is not enough administrative staff focused solely on instruction who can pivot to create new materials —indeed, many of the staff spent their time focusing on even more urgent needs, such as driving school buses to deliver meals. And the high-quality materials that are available online (e.g., Kahn Academy) could not be implemented, since at least thirty percent of children in our community do not have any access to the internet at home. An early attempt at parity was to send home tablets that came preloaded with educational apps. Unfortunately, even the tablets required data from cell towers in order to work, and many students here lack any cell phone service at home. The only local locations that offered internet access were libraries and McDonald’s, but both libraries and all dining rooms were closed.

Smaller schools also mean more shutdowns and disruptions, as even one sick bus driver can throw off the operation. Accordingly, our children have not returned for a single full day of instruction since school first closed, nearly eleven months ago. This means the stakes are high to provide quality instruction at home, but instead of synchronous instruction or Zoom meetups, our past eleven months have focused largely on photocopied paper packets and Google forms. What has been lost in the interim are some of the most critical forms of education—the knowledge-building opportunities that have been shown to expand educational and career opportunities. For example, we are the parents of a first grader who has not participated in a single storybook read aloud from his teacher this year or a single discussion with his peers. This is not to say that teachers and administrators at our school are not trying; they are working harder than they have ever before. But, without internet how would a teacher even stream a read aloud to her students? The answer is she can’t; the basic infrastructure is not even there in many rural communities.

We are very likely standing at the edge of a chasm of inequality for rural students. The digital divide between urban and rural communities was identified as early as the 1980s. Even then, before the internet age, researchers and policy makers were asking if the urban-rural digital divide was worsening. We now know it was and continues to do so. According to a recent report from the Federal Communications Commission, thirty-nine percent of the rural population (23.4 million based on the Census Bureau definition of rural), compared to just four percent of the urban population, could not access basic fixed broadband service. A full twenty percent of rural America cannot even get service higher than five megabits per second. And as many rural residents know, even if they do have access to higher speeds, service is monopolized by one provider and costs significantly more.

We have to understand that this is a problem that cannot be resolved with vaccine rollout. Cardona has pledged a commitment to help students connect with meaningful post-secondary and employment experiences. Without access to broadband, rural students will always face hurdles. In the days ahead, many students will need more intensive instruction to compensate for lost learning. And how will their teachers receive training that is specific to changes brought about by the pandemic? Online classes and training are frustratingly out of reach.

This is not the first time our nation has faced a choice about investing in infrastructure in the face of economic and social upheaval. In the 1930s only three percent of farm homes had access to electricity. It took a series of executive orders and acts of Congress, most notably the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, before a majority of rural households and farms had electricity. In the 1950s and 1960s, access to the telephone in rural communities followed a similar path. The challenge of today is an enormous digital divide affecting rural communities’ access to the internet and mobile service. Yet the wave of new technology came with more than challenges in implementation; the internet age has coincided with a seismic shift in the US economy.

Cardona’s deep experience in public schools and commitment to educational equality will serve him well as he takes on these challenges. But we argue that if educational equality is the focus of his role, one of his first steps with President Joe Biden should be to press for universal broadband, starting with rural communities. Not only would it create a more equal playing field for our rural students, it would be a clear commitment towards unifying urban folks—who overwhelmingly voted for President Biden—with their rural equals. That is exactly the kind of collaborative thinking that will help our country move forward to a better tomorrow for all of its citizens.

About the Author: Geoff Marietta is the entrepreneur-in-residence at the University of the Cumberlands, and the former executive director of Pine Mountain Settlement School. Sky Marietta is an assistant professor at the University of the Cumberlands, where she directs the Academic Resource Center. They are the authors of Rural Education in America: What Works for Our Students, Teachers, and Communities (Harvard Education Press 2020).