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Op-Ed: Louisiana students are set up to struggle without access to broadband

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As Louisiana students and parents await answers on returning to the classroom this fall, the issue of broadband availability is at the front of many of their minds.

Studies show that only 63 percent of rural Americans have access to home broadband internet, 12 percentage points lower than their suburban and urban counterparts. The Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) recently released its 2020 Distance Learning Survey for Louisiana, which reports only 66 percent of students in the state have home internet access.

A more granular look at the data shows that of the over 660,000 Louisiana students in the traditional parish school system, more than 285,000 are without home internet access.

These connections are crucial to student outcomes. When controlling for socioeconomic factors, there is a significant achievement gap between students who have access to the internet at home and those who do not.

A 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress for Louisiana measured performance for students in reading and math. In reading, fourth grade students lacking internet access scored 18 points lower than those with access, while those in eighth grade scored 15 points lower. In math, fourth graders without home broadband access scored 11 points lower, and eighth graders scored nine points lower. The maps at left and below present the percentage of students in each parish school system with home internet access, as well as access to a computer or tablet at home. The data illustrates in stark terms the digital divide many are experiencing in our state. The northern, more rural parishes of Louisiana report lower rates of home connectivity, and the trend continues with students’ access to a computer or tablet at home.

But this is not the only data showing students without a connection are more likely to struggle. A study from Michigan State University surveyed students in grades 8 to 11 in rural areas of Michigan and evaluated how broadband access impacts educational performance for students. The data found that even when controlling for socioeconomic factors, students with fast home-internet connections had average GPAs of (3.18), compared to those without a home connection (2.81) and students whose only access was through a smartphone (2.75). Furthermore, the study found that students who lack home internet access are 29 percent less likely to complete a university program or obtain a college degree.

Paul Nelson, superintendent of the Tensas Parish School District, said teachers were preparing paper packets for students while schools were closed this spring. “The majority of our kids don’t have machines or internet accessibility, so we will be preparing paper packets for review/practice work,” Nelson said.

LDOE backs up this assertion, reporting only 20 percent of students in Tensas Parish have a home internet connection, meaning only 84 students are online. Reliable connection to broadband internet is out of reach for countless families across Louisiana, and given the difficulties posed by COVID-19, the need to solve this problem is more urgent than ever.

So, how do we connect more students? If we want the necessary investment in broadband infrastructure to occur in rural areas, regulatory barriers restricting progress must come down. Fortunately, the Louisiana legislature recently passed a bill that will break down barriers to rural broadband access, and that legislation was signed by Governor John Bel Edwards on Wednesday. Even though this proposal was signed into law, however, more barriers still stand in the way of connectivity.

Until these barriers are gone and investment flows in, thousands of rural Louisiana residents will continue waiting for relief. In the meantime, one thing remains abundantly clear. If we want to put Louisiana students on track to succeed both in and out of the classroom, we must expand broadband internet access in rural communities.

Joshua Levine is an intern at Pelican Institute for Public Policy.

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