Closing the Achievement Gap Means Closing the Digital Divide

It’s hard to overstate the importance of education among the Latino community. Education has always been the great equalizer to help achieve the American dream. And in recent years, it was almost a dream being realized: standardized test scores were on the rise for five years in a row, Latinx students made up 44% of all undergraduates in California, and the number of Latinx professionals was steadily growing.

But that was before the pandemic.

“In one year, we saw five years of growth lost in terms of enrollment and representation,” said Deborah Santiago, co-founder and CEO of Excelencia in Education. Latinx enrollment in post-secondary programs fell by 2.1% overall in the past year and community colleges, which tend to be majority-Latinx, suffered a 13.7% decrease in enrollment. COVID-19 was even more devastating on K-12 students—passing scores dropped by 10% in English and 22% in math among Latinx students, twice the rate of their white peers.

Unsurprisingly for a state that opted for remote learning during quarantine, much of this learning loss can be traced back to the digital divide. Black and Latinx households are less likely to have reliable internet access. Despite billions in federal relief funds, the state has been slow to close that gap, leaving students no choice but to seek the nearest parking lot of their local library, McDonald’s, or Starbucks. We are now in our third year of this pandemic, yet the Public Policy Institute of California estimates that 29% of K-12 students in the state still do not have reliable internet.

Politicians might try to ease us with news of more incoming funds from Build Back Better, along with California’s own $7.2-billion Connectivity Fund Program. Still, these plans are focused on long-term projects to lay new fiber and cable lines—very little of which will help Latinx students here and now.

The digital divide didn’t happen by accident. It’s been proven time and time again that the traditional internet providers simply don’t find communities of color profitable. We can keep funneling billions into infrastructure, but at the end of the day, the issue isn’t that these companies can’t deliver good service to Latinx communities; it’s that they won’t.

Learning loss has been significant for two years, and the longer it goes on, the further our students fall behind. As the latest variant tears through California, families, and students are going online again—and internet access continues to be a challenge, especially in the Latinx community.

Our Governor and state legislators recognize this shortcoming and have done their best to fund long-term “future-proof” solutions, which for the moment, means fiber connectivity. This is well-intentioned, but it is not the total solution to the problem. Fiber deals with the performance shortcomings of traditional cable, but the technology cannot scale for the all-important “last mile” of connectivity to the home. This is not debatable, as this decades-old technology reaches just 20% of US homes. The answer for this is simple: big telecom companies face losing money connecting the vast majority of homes with fiber, particularly impacted are the less affluent rural areas like California’s Central Valley or Imperial County.

However, there are options. Innovative companies like Kwikbit have perfected their fixed wireless technology to deliver true broadband quickly, affordably, and securely to Californians. The Company set up the LA Boys & Girls Club and extended that broadband connectivity to local low-income residents in a matter of hours. Kwikbit is also underway in the manufactured housing sector, rapidly connecting the largest swath of affordable housing with gigabit broadband for just $50 a month.

With remote learning here to stay, educational recovery among Latinx students hinges on closing the ‘digital divide’ and doing it quickly. As the state struggles to connect disadvantaged communities, particularly in low-income and rural areas, the answer will not come from the internet providers that have neglected them for decades but rather from small, independent companies innovating with Latinx communities in mind. This can be done, and this must be done now.

The future is here, California. As the saying goes, ‘Ponte las pilas!’ (Get it together!)

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