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The Homework Gap Is More than It Seems

As a former school board member and never ending policy wonk, it has been with great interest that I have followed the debate over whether or not, in light of the COVID-19 crisis, online learning should count toward the required time spent in school.

Many articles have covered the issue well.  However, it was a comment Deputy Superintendent Vanessa Kessler in Mike Wilkinson’s Bridge article of March 21 that is the focus of this commentary. Kessler, deputy superintendent in the Michigan Department of Education’s Educator, Student and School Supports division, said, “only those districts and schools that can ensure that all students have equitable access to quality learning opportunities should pursue a full transition to online learning.”

Of course in Michigan, “equitable access to education” is not a new discussion. And, much like the last discussion on equity,  when Proposal A was meant to address funding issues between “rich” and “poor” districts, whether they be urban or rural schools, this time the “rich vs poor” centers around equitable access to technology.

Michigan policy makers, wonks, advocates and the public in general know that Prop A was meant to address the funding gap between school districts. And while funding remains an issue today, that debate was to the 20th century what the technology gap debate is to the 21st century. And while, the deputy superintendent’s comment takes it on, it does have a familiar ring to it…telling local districts it is their responsibility for ensuring equitable access.

On the surface, the issue is bringing together the House Speaker and the Governor. Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield, who hails from Levering in the Northern Lower Peninsula, included in his recommendations to Governor Gretchen Whitmer that online learning be counted as equal to in-person instruction time. And when the Michigan Department of Education ruled that such learning would not count, Gov. Whitmer noted her own dismay. This sudden bi-partisanship is puzzling, as Speaker Chatfield should actually be linking arms with Detroit Superintendent Nikolai P. Vitti, who, in supporting the MDE decision, has noted that counting online instruction toward graduation requirements would be unfair if students who had access to online content got credit while others who had no access did not. 

There are several reasons why Speaker Chatfield and Superintendent Vitti should be linking arms. One is because much like Prop A, this issue remains between districts who cannot afford to provide their students with a laptop or iPad, namely lower income districts (whether they be urban or rural) and those that can (whether they be urban or rural).  And the Speaker’s district, the 107th House district is, by many standards (per capita income, education attainment, unemployment rate, to name a few), one of the more economically stressed in our st

Another reason this speaker from Northern Michigan should be allied with the Superintendent from the City of Detroit is because rural areas constitute the largest portion of our state and country without broadband. Nationally, a recent Governing magazine article noted that “According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), 90 percent of the roughly 21 million Americans who don’t have access to broadband Internet live in rural communities.”   Rural Northern lower Michigan is no exception.

Also, recent research from Michigan State University’s Quello Center, funded in part by the MSU Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, in collaboration with Merit Network and several Michigan intermediate school districts, shows the impact of variations in broadband connectivity on learning outcomes. The report, “Broadband and Student Performance Gaps” shows that students without high-speed Internet access at home have lower grades, lower digital skills, and are less likely to plan to attend a college or university. And the fact is that those with post-secondary education earn more over their lifetimes than those with simply a high school degree.

Finally, data maps from the organization Connected Nation Michigan show Northern Michigan is one of the worst-connected areas in our state, both in terms of high-speed internet connectivity and provider access. These findings in the report show that the “homework gap” is more than what its name implies, it is a gap that involves equitable access to a 21st century tool that is a necessary utility for success in the 21st century.

So as the debate over on-line learning continues it might be a good time for perhaps a different alliance of legislative leaders to address the actual inequities in the technology gap. One that would include urban and rural legislators. Maybe they will learn they are more alike than they are dissimilar.

Or, it may be valuable to have special education advocates join, since the U.S. Department of Education has declared that “during this unprecedented emergency,” the “IDEA” act, which is meant to protect disabled Americans, “should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction.”

Politicians love finding the one good answer, the “silver bullet”  for every issue they face. Addressing the equity issues of technology could be the underlying silver bullet that builds a new coalition to ensure every K-12 student can have the tools needed for success in the 21st century.

Arnold Weinfeld is associate director at the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University. He also serves as director for workforce and economic development partnerships in MSU’s Office for Public Engagement and Scholarship.