Is Access to Technology a Right?

As the debates around school choice and Common Core continue to swirl, and efforts around broadband in schools keep growing, education is one of the top challenges facing our nation. It’s an issue designated to the states, yet one that is constantly in the federal spotlight.

The summer before my senior year of college I conducted faculty-mentored research on the right to education in the United States. What I learned is that, contrary to popular belief, we do not have a federally protected right to education.  This was explicitly ruled in the 1973 Supreme Court ruling of San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez. This case involved financing of two different school districts in Texas, where the wealthier district was receiving more financial support. A class action suit was brought under the Equal Protection Clause, claiming that education was a fundamental right that cannot be denied based on wealth. The Court, however, disagreed, stating that education was not a right that was explicitly or implicitly guaranteed by the Constitution. This decision essentially foreclosed any option of pursuing a “right to education” at the federal level and forced groups to seek other options for recognition of this right. Many began looking to the state courts and state constitutions for help.

As indicated by the Tenth Amendment, any powers not explicitly granted to the federal government by the Constitution fall to the states. This is the reason that, historically and by tradition, education has become an issue regulated by the states.¹  Because of this, once closed off from a federal pathway, education rights advocates sought this right from the state courts and state constitutions.  As part of my research, I conducted a 50-state survey to see which states explicitly guaranteed a right to education under their constitution. At the time that I completed this project, only four states fell under this category: North Carolina, Wisconsin, Wyoming, and Ohio.  However, even when an explicit right does not exist, many state Supreme Courts have determined that there is an implicit right. Including the four states mentioned above, 28 states recognize some right to education. Thirteen states, however, have used their courts to deny that this right exists while nine have either not addressed the question or have made an unclear determination.

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Classifying education as a right means that we cannot deny anyone access to education nor can we allow education to be unequal unless we can prove that it is necessary to achieve a “compelling government purpose.”²  So what does that mean in our current day and age? To me, this means that technology must play a role. Some schools have access to lightning fast broadband, while others cannot even get on the internet to take state required standardized tests: one of our convening guests, Congressman Derek Kilmer, told a story of a school in his district attended by members of the Makah tribe in which only 15 students at a time could get online to take their state-mandated exit testing. In order to even get this type of access, they had to ensure that all other computers in the school were disconnected from the network.  This is not an equal education. Education, in our current day and age, requires access to technology. If we deny a student access to technology in their school, then we are arguably denying them the same educational opportunities we are affording to others. Great organizations exist to help improve this – Educationsuperhighway.org is one example – but I believe this needs to become part of the national conversation. If we want our students to thrive in a 21st century society, we need to ensure that we provide them with the tools to do so. Technology is absolutely one of these tools.

This issue is particularly important as today marks the day that the FCC will vote on Chairman Tom Wheeler’s E-rate modernization plan.  As indicated by the proposal, this program will commit at least 1 billion dollars to getting more schools connected, phase out the program’s non-broadband spending, and streamline the application process for E-Rate dollars, among other things.³  Education groups are split on the effectiveness of the program.  While most applaud the increases in spending, some question whether it really goes far enough towards improving broadband in schools.  Regardless of what the FCC decides today, the role of technology in schools is something we must continue to push.  As we all know, technology is constantly changing and we cannot let it fall behind in our schools. If access to equal, quality education truly is a right, does it follow that access to effective technology (and broadband) in education is also a right?

References:

¹ The League of Women Voters. (2011).The History Of Federal Government In Public Education: Where Have We Been And How Did We Get Here? Retrieved from http://www.lwv.org/content/history-federal-government-public-education-where-have-we-been-and-how-did-we-get-here

² Strict Scrutiny. (n.d.) Retrieved from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strict_scrutiny

³Molnar, M. (2014). FCC Prepared To Vote on E-Rate Overhaul. Education Week. Retrieved from  http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/07/09/36erate.h33.html

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