There was a lot of gnashing of teeth going on a few weeks ago when it became known that the state legislature’s wish list for spending the estimated $1.7 billion from the federal government’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) included building a new state house for $200 million. Gnashing of teeth did not leap to my mind. I was thinking more about showing anyone who voted for new offices the exit door in the next election.
Looking beyond all the hoopla though, that same wish list contained some other ideas, one in particular I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. There, along with other nuggets, was the idea of spending $800 million on rural broadband. It’s long overdue. I’ve been reading about the issue for years.
Two years ago, one of our local state legislators told me how important it would be for business and economic development to have the internet available everywhere. That is true, without any doubt, but the COVID-19 pandemic uncovered, for me at least, another reason it is a good idea. It also laid bare an ugly truth.
In-class instruction ceased in March and school systems across the state scrambled to provide distance learning to K-12 students. To the credit of educators, they did a fantastic job in a short period of time adjusting to the new normal. It would have been easier though if all students had access to the internet. They don’t.
I learned that 48 percent of the students in the Blount County school system do not have broadband access either due to lack of availability or cost. Almost half. That’s inexcusable, but I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that this county isn’t even the worst in the state.
Making broadband available to every household is only half the problem. It is imperative that it is also affordable. No student in this country should ever be denied access to learning because of an inability to pay for one of humankind’s greatest inventions, the internet. The web puts a vast library of knowledge at a child’s doorstep, and to deny any child access because of cost is wrong.
Poverty cannot and must not be the barrier to learning because, as I’ve written before, education is one of the few escape routes from poverty. Every child must have the best opportunity to find that path through education.
Even when in-class learning resumes, children without the internet are at a disadvantage. It can make it difficult to keep up with students who can access the internet at any time.
The poor are denied that right, only by virtue of being poor. If that leads to the denial of a higher education, many get stuck in low-paying jobs. Food insecurity, poor healthcare, bad living conditions, and the prospects of a chance at higher education for their own children are just some handicaps of being poor.
The cycle of poverty will continue unless we do something to stop it. This might be a chance to alter that cycle. Surfing the web may not be the magic bullet, but making it available to everyone should be a priority. Let our state representatives, senators, and the governor know an even educational playing field is the right thing for all of Alabama’s students.