Kansans Kelly and Pai discuss homework gap on national forum

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly and Federal Communications Commissioner Ajit Pai discussed the “homework gap” Thursday in separate interviews with the Axios media platform. Kelly said the state has made some progress toward improving home broadband internet access, but the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated there is more work to be done. Pai stated he wants to “work with” public educators to provide better internet access for students and urged them to tweet at him or email him with ideas. 

Kelly also pledged to “work like the devil” to find ways to continue to fund public schools in Kansas despite pandemic-related revenue shortfalls and said she hoped anticipated additional federal stimulus money targeted to state and local governments could help the overall revenue forecast. 

The “homework gap” refers to inequitable access to home internet service by students and families. The gap is most prevalent in rural areas where connectivity is poor and in high-poverty communities where families cannot afford access. It’s estimated that 70,000 Kansas school-aged children don’t have reliable home internet access.  

In her interview segment, Kelly reminded viewers that Kansas was the first state to close school buildings for the remainder of the current school year and lauded Kansas teachers for quickly developing Continuous Learning Plans to allow education to continue. Those plans often combine online learning options with take-home packets. 

Kelly said there’s been “great cooperation” between state government and internet providers to expand access in the wake of pandemic-related closures. She noted however that the state has been grappling for years with connectivity issues, including through the establishment of a broadband task force, and that the coronavirus pandemic has shown there are many gaps that still must be addressed. 

Pai, a native of Parsons, Kansas, and a graduate of Parsons High School, said the FCC has made “substantial progress” over the past several years to expand broadband internet access and has worked “aggressively” recently to relax rules against providers donating and schools accepting the donation of connectivity technology 

He declined to support using FCC-administered ERate funds to help schools and students purchase WiFi hotspots, modems, routers, and connected devices to enable students to learn at home during the pandemic, saying federal law restricts those purchases to classroom use.  

Pai said he’s working with the U.S. Department of Education and Congress on a “Remote Learning Initiative” that will be announced “soon.He said the initiative should be administered separately from the ERate program because he doesn’t want the initiative to face “administrative burden and delay.” 

Pai urged educators to tweet him at @AjitPaiFCC or email him at Ajit.Pai@fcc.gov with their ideas on how to bridge the homework gap. 

The nationally-broadcast event, “The Education Puzzle: COVID-19 widens the homework gap,” featured separate 10-minute interviews with Kelly, Khan Academy CEO Sal Khan, and Pai. The event was billed as a conversation on how the coronavirus is widening the homework gap and the creative solutions surfacing across the nation.” 

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