As Texas public school leaders work through a variety of issues caused by the coronavirus pandemic, one issue that seems to impact almost all of them is internet access for students.
Broadband infrastructure development is sorely needed for many public schools throughout the state to give students online access to teachers and curriculum. Rural communities are often underserved as well as many urban areas where the service is not affordable to many residents.
According to the nonprofit public policy group Texas 2036, “The problem of a digital divide isn’t limited to rural areas. Five major Texas cities—Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, El Paso, and Corpus Christi—rank among the top 25 large U.S. cities with the “worst connections,” according to census data.
That means a quarter or more of their populations do not subscribe to fixed broadband services due to cost or other factors. And statewide, Texas ranks just 38th in broadband adoption among the states, with 35 percent of Texas households not subscribing to fixed internet.”
Currently, nine million Texans don’t have a broadband internet connection. The problem in Texas is dire enough that the governor declared the need for broadband access as one of his five emergency items for the 2021 legislative session.
Fortunately, one resource to address the issue may be on the way. The latest stimulus package offered by the federal government—the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act provides $12.4 billion for Texas public schools with a provision for the development of Internet access. The $1.9 trillion dollar package provides $7.1 billion for E-Rate support for emergency educational connections and devices across the nation. The E-Rate program, officially known as the Schools and Libraries Universal Service Support program, helps schools and libraries to obtain affordable broadband.
This support will not happen, however, if the state fails to access funds available through the ARP due to a desire to avoid federal control. A maintenance of equity provision in the bill requires Texas to use at least 90% of the $12.4 billion on the state’s poorest students, leading to concerns that this restriction may cause state officials to reject the award entirely.
Concerns that the funds will not be accepted stem from Texas’ history of rejecting federal funding due to a desire to avoid national ties. Texas is one of a handful of states that have still not fully expanded Medicaid. Some believe this rejection of funds is a major factor as to why the state has the largest number of uninsured residents in the country. Medicaid expansion bills are currently being considered in the state legislature but there is also a bizarre bill calling for a voter referendum to decide if the legislature should begin to conceive a plan to leave the union.
Not only would acceptance of these funds help to expand the current E-Rate program, it would also be consistent with other ongoing development measures that are already underway in Texas, like a $19 million dollar USDA program for rural broadband development and a FCC award to companies for expansion.
In addition, the funds would support the governor’s emergency objective to expand coverage while supporting pending priority legislation for the expansion of access in the state like Senate Bill 5 (SB 5) and House Bill 5 (HB 5). Both bills call for the development of a broadband development council to “research broadband development in unserved areas, the deployment of broadband statewide, and the purchase of broadband by residential and commercial customers.”
Given the needs the state has, it would be bizarre indeed if state officials refused the $12.4 billion award due to federal restrictions. There is a severe need to provide broadband internet access to as many people as possible. Texas’ leaders have a moral responsibility to their constituents and all the state’s nearly 30 million residents. To lead with dignity and honor, they must accept the funds from the ARP and spend it appropriately as delineated in the federal legislation.