March 12, 2019

Luján, Udall, Haaland Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Put Wi-Fi on School Buses and Help Close the Digital Divide

Bipartisan bill aims to close "homework gap" that disadvantages low-income and rural students without internet access at home

Today, U.S. Representative Ben Ray Luján, U.S. Senator Tom Udall and U.S. Representative Deb Haaland introduced a bill to make it easier to put wireless internet on school buses in order to help students without broadband access at home get online to study, learn, and complete homework. The legislation would require the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) E-Rate Program to reimburse school districts that place Wi-Fi technology on school buses carrying students to school or school-related extracurricular activities. The bipartisan bill was cosponsored by U.S. Senators Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) in the Senate.

Millions of students need access to the internet to complete their assignments, but studies estimate that one-in-five students lack that access in their homes. This gap especially impacts low-income, rural, and Tribal students who must find other ways to get online to complete their homework – often working out of school parking lots late into the night or walking miles to find a reliable signal.

“Our students should be given every opportunity to succeed in their schoolwork. Today, that means having access to a reliable Internet connection to complete homework, study, and explore academic pursuits. When one-fifth of our students can’t log on to further their studies, we’re creating a digital divide that will have impacts long after graduation,” said Luján. “I’ve heard from students and teachers about the burdens they face each day and I’m proud to lead on this effort that will help connect communities in New Mexico and across the country, so students face fewer hurdles on their road to success.”

“When we increase access to high-speed internet, we increase access to opportunities. Every kid in New Mexico and across the country should have every opportunity to succeed – no matter where they live or how much their family makes. But nearly one-third of New Mexico kids are at risk of falling behind in school simply because they can’t get on the internet at home,” said Udall. “It’s time to end the homework gap and set our kids up for success. By extending internet access to students while they commute to and from school, this bill would turn travel time into study time, enabling kids to complete their homework before they get home. As a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, I’ll continue to push for innovative, 21st century solutions to help bridge the digital divide that hurts too many rural, Tribal, and low-income communities across New Mexico through strong federal investment in broadband and internet infrastructure.”

“Kids deserve the tools they need to succeed, but one of the biggest hurdles students in New Mexico face is the digital divide. Nowadays, access to the internet is imperative for school work and also prepares students for the technological world we live in. By ensuring school buses have wi-fi, we’re adding another access point to resources that help students succeed,” said Haaland.

“I whole-heartedly support Senator Udall's efforts to close the digital divide, and especially the homework gap, for students who lack internet access at home,” added Dr. Veronica C. Garcia, superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools. “His vision turns idle seat time on the school bus into an opportunity for extended learning.  As Superintendent of a school district that benefits from rolling school buses, it is exciting to know that children throughout the country will be able to experience continued learning during their often long commutes home. I applaud Sen. Udall for bringing this legislation forward.”

The bill was inspired by an idea put forth by Jonah Madrid, a student-athlete from Hatch, New Mexico. In 2016, during a roundtable on the homework gap at Hatch Valley High School, Madrid told Udall and FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel about the great lengths he would go to find Wi-Fi signal after school was over. Madrid said that after traveling hours on the bus to football games, he would sit in the dark school parking lot late at night to do his homework because that was the only place he could access wireless internet. Madrid proposed putting wireless technology on his school bus in order to let him and his teammates make use of their long bus rides.

“The homework gap is the cruelest part of the digital divide. But with Wi-Fi on school buses we can turn ride time into connected time to give students the broadband access they need to do their homework. Kudos to Reps. Lujan, Welch, and Haaland for their important work to make this happen,” said FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.

Since then, the bipartisan legislation has received widespread support from a range of stakeholders, including the School Superintendents Association, a professional organization representing thousands of educational leaders throughout America and the world, the Competitive Carriers Association, an advocacy organization for rural, regional and nationwide wireless telecommunications, and the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA) Wireless, a Navajo-owned communications company. Tribal communities are hit particularly hard by the digital divide, with approximately 76 percent of Tribal members living in rural New Mexico unable to access the internet at home.

“When we think about efficiencies in federal policies, and common sense solutions that allow education system leaders to make small changes with big impacts: that is the type of policy we can support. AASA applauds Mr. Gardner and Mr. Udall for their continued leadership on the issue of expanding access to internet for our students, and AASA is pleased to support their bill that would require the Federal Communications Commission to include Wi-Fi access on school buses an eligible use of the E-Rate program. AASA has long supported the E-Rate program, responsible for transforming internet access in classrooms across the nation over the last two decades, and this legislation is another step forward in ensuring that today’s 24-hour students have 24-hour access,“ said Daniel A. Domenech, Executive Director of the School Superintendents Association.

“Access to educational resources is just one of the many benefits that robust mobile broadband can bring to communities across the country.  Allowing students the opportunity to do homework and access the Internet on school buses is a perfect example, and CCA supports this effort to ensure no student – whether urban or rural – is left behind in the digital world,” said Steven K. Berry, President and CEO of the Competitive Carriers Association.

Clyde Casciato, NTUA Wireless General Manager said, “Those living on the Navajo nation know firsthand that internet access is too often not available at home or in their community, making it nearly impossible for students to complete homework assignments and research projects. In trials where NTUAW has partnered with Kayenta Unified School District to provide this service on three different school bus routes, the technology worked successfully and has been used regularly by students to complete assignments.  With this service, students are able to take advantage of what would otherwise be lost hours on the school bus each day to continue their education.  E-Rate funds are necessary to support this initiative, or it will never become a reality for most schools as they cannot afford to take on the expense of this additional service. Without a doubt, expanding E-Rate funds to include internet access on school buses will impact the quality of education received by so many students on the Navajo Nation. On behalf of NTUAW, I want to thank you for advocating to fund this service, and look forward to the opportunity to partner with schools to get it deployed on school buses throughout the Navajo Nation.”

The full text of the legislation is available HERE. A summary of the bill is available HERE

Press Contact

Ned Adriance (Udall), 202.228.6870
Lauren French (Luján) 202.225.6190
Felicia Salazar (Haaland) 202.981.1594