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Broadband funding caught up in debate over reopening schools

Republicans say that providing additional money for remote learning through the FCC would slow down the reopening of schools

Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., says money for the FCC to give more internet access to poor students is unnecessary.
Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., says money for the FCC to give more internet access to poor students is unnecessary. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

The debate over reopening schools amid the ongoing pandemic is spilling into negotiations over billions of dollars in new money to help students who lack home internet access.

As Democrats in Congress push forward with a plan to provide $7.6 billion for a program that provides discounted laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to schools and libraries, Republicans are questioning whether the funding is necessary when President Joe Biden has said he wants to reopen a majority of public schools in the coming months.

At a markup last Friday of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s budget reconciliation recommendations, which include the funding proposal, Republicans said providing additional money for remote learning would slow down the reopening of schools. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., offered an amendment that would only provide the funds to schools providing in-person instruction.

“The hotspots are not the same, nor is the education that many students are receiving online,” said Walberg at the markup. “We owe it to our children not to mortgage their future on a $7 billion program that will starve them of valuable education.”

Walberg’s amendment was rejected, but it underscored how Republicans are messaging against key aspects of Biden’s pandemic relief agenda even though it calls for $130 billion to help schools reopen — more than 15 times the funding for distance learning.

Democrats have insisted the distance learning funding will be crucial even after schools reopen, including for students who cannot attend because of health risks. Educators support that claim, arguing that sufficient funding for students who cannot attend online classes would allow them to spend other available funding elsewhere.

Proponents say the money could also address inequities in education that existed long before the pandemic.

“If you can offer that added service for remote learning, it’s not going to slow down reopening because prior to the pandemic, we needed this service,” Tiffany Anderson, the superintendent of the Topeka, Kan., school district, said at a hearing on Wednesday. “This is just the light being shined on it.”

Last March, Congress provided $16 billion for schools to weather the pandemic, including for costs associated with distance learning. The schools in Topeka received funding, but officials were only able to set aside a portion for online learning, Anderson said.

The new money, which would be distributed through the FCC’s E-rate program, has been a priority for Democratic lawmakers throughout the pandemic and is based on legislation introduced last year by Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y.

The measure approved by the Energy and Commerce Committee last week would direct the FCC to establish a regulatory change allowing E-rate purchases for off-campus devices. Under the current rules, purchases through the program must be used on school grounds. The FCC, under new Democratic leadership, began the rule-change process earlier this month.

“Kids shouldn’t have to do homework in parking lots because that’s the only place they can get online,” Jessica Rosenworcel, the FCC’s acting chairwoman, said recently. “We can do better.”

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