Sen. Max Wise (R-Campbellsville) and former education commissioner Wayne Lewis are calling on the federal government to help expand internet access to all Kentucky students.
“This is not something that states, particularly states like Kentucky, are going to be able to take on all on their own,” Lewis said Monday during a press conference hosted the Walton Family Foundation.
Lewis is serving as the dean of Belmont University school of education in Nashville, after being forced out of his position as education commissioner in December.
Wise, who chairs the state senate’s education committee, said many families struggled in the spring to get online when schools moved to nontraditional instruction, or NTI.
“Some families were having to drive their child to a parking lot outside of a fast-food restaurant to be able to hook up to a Wi-Fi connection, ” Wise said.
Wise said he’s been encouraging local superintendents to reach out to their federal delegation and ask for money in the next pandemic stimulus package.
“We’re also going to have to look at private businesses in many communities and what they can do to play a part in this [by] pairing up with various companies or individuals that can help with donations to schools,” Wise said.
Wise did not say how much he thought the state’s schools needed.
A recent study by Common Sense Media estimates that 36% of Kentucky students and 10% of Kentucky teachers don’t have the internet access they need to participate in online learning. Many educators, including Lewis, worry that means existing learning gaps will grow as instruction moves online this fall because of the pandemic.
“The reality is that many of the kids who have traditionally been under-served are kids who lack access to technology, who lack access to the web,” Lewis said.
Lewis pointed to the fact that in many rural Kentucky communities, the infrastructure for broadband doesn’t exist.
“I mean we’re talking about areas where there literally is no access,” Lewis said.
That’s not the only problem.
“There’s also a critical economic barrier, particularly in places like Eastern Kentucky,” Mountain Association for Community Economic Development president Peter Hille said. “Even when we have the infrastructure, we find that not everyone is able to access it.”
Hille pointed to data from the University of Kentucky showing that even when infrastructure was built out to every home in Jackson County, residents had similar access rates to nearby Leslie County, where infrastructure was less developed.
“Simply having that infrastructure available did not solve the access problem,” he said.
Economic barriers to web access are playing out in communities across the state, including in urban ones like Louisville and Lexington.
Lewis said it would take a “long-term partnership” with the federal government in order to get each student connected to broadband.
The nonprofit advocacy group Common Sense Media estimates it would cost between $6 and $11 billion in the first year to expand internet access to every student in the U.S.
Congress is still negotiating another major coronavirus relief package.