A young teacher from Central Texas gets elected to the U.S. House of Representatives during the worst economic crisis in our nation’s history. Having experienced the ravages of poverty first hand through his classroom experience, he sets out to improve the quality of life for his rural community by providing a resource already available in more affluent homes: electricity.
A problem quickly emerges: The Texas Hill Country is too poor and sparsely populated to make such an ambitious endeavor profitable to private providers. Unsatisfied with the status quo, the new congressman works tirelessly to reimagine what is possible, and finally secures a meeting with President Franklin Roosevelt himself. His impassioned entreaty convinces FDR to relax the population requirements necessary to secure the federal loans that would overcome market restraints and turn the lights on across rural Texas. “I think of all the things I have ever done,” Lyndon B. Johnson later reflected, “nothing has ever given me as much satisfaction.”
Today, the internet is as vital to our collective well-being as electricity has been for the past 100 years. While both may have begun as a luxury for the wealthy and well-connected, each quickly evolved into a prerequisite for participation in the modern economy. Today, 70% of job openings are posted online. Over 70% of those jobs require “medium to high digital skills.” And even prior to the pandemic, nearly 60% of eighth graders used the internet to do homework every or nearly every day.
The current global pandemic has only heightened these emergent trends. A high-speed connection has become necessary to merely enter the schoolhouse gates of the coronavirus-era. The same often goes for those seeking job training and employment as well as the public health directives and vital telemedicine initiatives that will eventually allow us to move forward.
In spite of all this, the state of Texas, like many throughout the country, remains woefully under-connected. Nearly one-in-five households with children, or 1.3 million homes, do not have internet service of any kind, according to U.S. census data analyzed by the Commit Partnership. Thousands more are forced to make do with cellular data or dial-up, methods that fall below the state’s own definition of broadband internet. Often, these homes are either located in rural communities or concentrated in neighborhoods that have already disproportionately suffered from poor health outcomes and economic immobility. And, as with so many other indicators of social well-being, the burden falls disproportionately on our Black and Latinx families.
While limited broadband infrastructure may reach some of these communities, a dearth of discretionary income for residents and competition for providers effectively locks out the very families who need it most. For example, rural East Texans on average pay 400% more per megabit than do residents of the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex — for less reliable and slower broadband.
As the superintendents of urban, suburban and rural public school districts from across the state, we view this as an untenable emergency requiring immediate mobilization from the public and private sectors. That’s why we support the formation of Operation Connectivity, an effort to expand broadband access statewide made possible by Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath.
We are thankful that leaders on both sides of the aisle have approached this as an entirely nonpartisan issue, one that will benefit remote ranchlands and inner-city neighborhoods equally. Still, significant hurdles remain to be addressed. Much like with rural electrification almost a century ago, costs are simply too high to provide universal access to remote regions without government intervention.
But we feel strongly that the costs of failing to address our worsening digital divide would be even greater. By locking countless students out of both learning environments and employment opportunities, we make it harder to reemerge from our current economic catastrophe and deny ourselves the innovations these talented young people could one day make manifest.
If we instead pool our resources to bridge this worrisome gap, we can do more than simply maintain instruction through our current crisis conditions. We can also utilize increased technology to enhance our Response to Intervention to better serve our neediest students, and even potentially redesign disciplinary practices and procedures.
We hope that the bipartisan, cross-sector coalition we are building in Texas can inspire and inform similar efforts elsewhere, and that the federal government could offer its support. We are thrilled to see the “Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act” introduced in Congress and sincerely hope it can garner the necessary bipartisan support in both chambers. Projects to increase broadband connectivity could put more people back to work and help to re-generate these beleaguered economies.
Simply put, our students (and, increasingly, our entire economy) are reliant upon internet access. By encouraging market innovation and political collaboration, we can ensure no one gets left out.
This commentary is signed by the following Texas school superintendents: Dr. Michael Hinojosa, Dallas ISD; HD Chambers, Alief ISD; Pedro Martinez, San Antonio ISD; Paul Cruz, Austin ISD; Juan E. Cabrera, El Paso ISD; and Michelle Barrow, Newton ISD.