WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), along with Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and more than two dozen of their colleagues sent a letter today to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) urging it to immediately utilize the E-Rate program to provide internet connectivity to students at home. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, students across the country are increasingly attending virtual classrooms. Yet, studies indicate that as many as 16 million children in the United States lack internet access at home and are unable to participate in online learning. These students are disproportionally from communities of color, low-income households, and rural areas.
The E-Rate Program is, and has been for more than two decades, an essential source of funding to connect the nation’s K-12 schools and libraries to the internet. The FCC has clear authority and available funding under the E-Rate program to provide connections at students’ homes — which, because schools have had to close their doors, have become de facto classrooms. However, the FCC has narrowly construed its ability to act during the current emergency, needlessly leaving millions of children at risk of falling behind in their studies.
“The FCC has the power to help mitigate the impact of the coronavirus on our most vulnerable families,” write the lawmakers in their letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “We now urge you in the strongest possible terms to utilize this authority to provide internet connectivity and devices for children in need. School bells across the country have started to ring, but without immediate action, many students are at risk of never making it to class.”
A copy of the letter can be found HERE.
The letter is also signed by Senators Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Cory Booker (D.N.J.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Mark Udall (D-N.M.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Angus King (I-Maine), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Bob Casey, Jr, (D-Penn.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
Every Senator who signed today’s letter also co-sponsored the Emergency Educational Connections Act, legislation that would appropriate at least $4 billion to be delivered through the E-Rate program to equip students with internet connectivity and devices during the ongoing pandemic. These lawmakers are fighting to ensure that Congress enacts this legislation as part of the next coronavirus relief package. However, the FCC need not — and should not — wait for Congress to act.
The E-Rate program was created as a part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The program is designed to connect schools and libraries to the Internet, as well as ensure access for low-income students and families. Prior to E-Rate, only 14 percent of K-12 classrooms had Internet access. Today, Americans benefit from near ubiquitous deployment in schools and libraries. Since the E-Rate began nearly two decades ago, more than $52 billion has been committed nationwide to provide internet access for schools and libraries.