Black students desperately need a new federal Lifeline

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Among the cascading tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating and disproportionate impacts on Black and Hispanic Americans is this: Without digital devices or a data source, children of color who are already disadvantaged in our education system will miss out on a year of schooling. That adds even higher peril to children who are already at great risk of not performing on grade level, not graduating high school and not attending and finishing college — all of which ensures lower lifetime earnings.

But there is a ready answer. Fittingly, it is called “Lifeline.”

The federal Lifeline program was created in the 1980s under President Reagan to help low-income Americans afford telephone service. It has been expanded over the years to help provide access to a basic cellphone with a limited amount of data.

The most recent evolution, to accommodate broadband, was demonized by some Republicans who labeled it the “Obamaphone” program. Here’s a modest but timely proposal, given President Trump’s quest to reverse all markers of the Obama administration: Update Lifeline to cover educational tools like tablets and provide enough data for low-income kids to access their classes from home.

The digital divide is particularly wide for communities of color. According to Pew Research, nearly half of blacks and Hispanics earning less than $30,000 per year have had to let their access to traditional broadband lapse. The average American family uses more than 30 gigabytes of data a month, but the Lifeline program currently imposes a cap at 3 gigabytes. Imagine a family with three children or more trying to share a single cell phone so their children can attend classes by Zoom, watch educational videos, and complete and turn in homework assignments.

In the real world where these folks live, it simply cannot be done.

If President Trump wants to do the right thing and solve this problem quickly, he could direct the FCC to take these steps for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis:

  • Ensure that Lifeline beneficiaries have access to 4G where available, and enable hot spot access;
  • Temporarily suspend the limit of one device per household, and encourage Lifeline providers to make available larger-screen devices like tablets;
  • Temporarily lift the 3-gigabyte data limit and instruct providers to deliver up to 40 gigabytes of data;

By modernizing the Lifeline program in the midst of this epic crisis, the Trump administration could make it a true lifeline for disadvantaged children who are out of school for the foreseeable future and out of options to catch up and close the achievement gap.

Ben Crump is a civil rights attorney and founder of the national law firm Ben Crump Law, based in Tallahassee, Fla.

Tags Broadband Coronavirus COVID-19 Digital divide Donald Trump FCC Federal Communications Commission Internet access Lifeline Pew Remote learning Ronald Reagan

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