A partisan battle is emerging as Congressional Republicans take issue with a federal push to expand Wi-Fi onto public school buses.
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chair Jessica Rosenworcel (D) is proposing a rule to clarify that school buses are eligible for E-Rate funding, a program that offers discounted Wi-Fi access to schools. She has asserted that the effort would close the homework gap, as nearly 17 million school children lack internet access at home.
That stat is in spite of the fact that in November 2021, under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Congress approved the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), providing eligible households with a discount on broadband service and connected devices.
According to the National School Boards Association (NBSA), the homework gap “impacts some of the most vulnerable students such as those from low-income families and those systematically underserved” amid growing “imperative” for internet access as the learning environment has shifted from brick-and-mortar classrooms to online learning.
However, leading Republicans on the House and Senate Commerce committees—led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) have criticized the FCC’s proposal, arguing that it would increase children’s access to risky and detrimental social media apps in a situation with limited supervision—the school bus.
Further, Republicans say they don’t support the expansion because they don’t think it falls under the scope of the E-Rate funding program.
Proponents of the program, like former Obama Administration FCC Chair Tom Wheeler, counter that the Republicans’ arguments fall short of proving either point.
“[A] school is where learning takes place. If that learning is in a classroom, or a study hall, or a school bus, the school is where learning takes place. And you want to facilitate that learning using technology. And that’s the purpose of the E-Rate program,” Wheeler said.
Other advocates have argued that Wi-Fi on school buses would benefit students at rural schools with rides of an hour or longer, as well as student-athletes who sometimes don’t get back from their events until late into the evening.
The FCC is scheduled to consider the proposal during its upcoming October 19 meeting.