In summary

California can take a page from the WPA’s playbook during the Depression and develop broadband infrastructure to close the digital divide.

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By Larry Fondation

Larry Fondation is executive director of United Parents and Students, a nonprofit based in Los Angeles,

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Ana Ponce, Special to CalMatters

Ana Ponce is executive director of Great Public Schools Now, a California-based nonprofit,

Of the many cracks in our country’s foundation laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic, unequal access to the internet may have the most devastating long-term consequences. 

With classrooms moving online, a massive digital divide is wreaking havoc on learning outcomes for those already receiving the least amount of resources: Black, Indigenous, Latino and poor students across California and the nation. 

Educators and families agree: if we want all of our students to succeed in the remote education environment thrust upon us for the foreseeable future, we need more local, state and federal investment in infrastructure, technology and supplemental learning tools.

With no second CARES Act in sight and partisan gridlock in Washington, D.C., the state of California needs to step in to address this persistent source of inequity.

While the pandemic is certainly unprecedented in many ways, there are lessons to be learned from similarly devastating times in our past. 

After the Great Depression, one of the most successful New Deal programs was the Works Progress Administration, known as the WPA. At its inception in 1935, the WPA budget was $4.9 billion, a whopping 6.7% of that year’s GDP. Over its eight-year history, it employed more than 8.5 million Americans. The WPA accomplished two main things: putting people back to work and meeting national needs, ranging from shoring up infrastructure to preserving the arts. 

California can take a page from the WPA’s book. At a time when interest rates are at record lows, California should be looking to finance investments in broadband infrastructure to expand access to broadband networks. It can develop private-public partnerships to ensure the next generation of 5G technology reaches the poorest neighborhoods. 

In the meantime, California will need to take action to support students who live in an area with poor broadband infrastructure. Using state pandemic relief funding, we could hire as many as a thousand 18- to 24-year-old tutors at scale, providing jobs to college students who might be unable to attend school right now. These young adults are skilled with online tools and in need of economic assistance to support themselves and often their families.

We could also use a windfall profits tax to pay for such urgent and timely interventions and restore some level of fiscal balance. Alternatively, a tax on very high earners could be adopted to provide an immediate influx of cash for education. 

Meanwhile, many cities are beginning to redirect funds intended for the expansion of police departments to programs that address racial, social and economic justice, particularly for Black communities. In addition to alternative public safety strategies, some of these redirected funds should be used to confront the opportunity gap in schools.

We know that schools alone cannot remedy the lack of infrastructural investment. Under our current system, many school buildings are already not equipped to meet the needs of all of their students. Moreover, they are not adequately resourced to support learning in the hundreds or sometimes thousands of varied homes-turned-learning environments. However, with cross-sector partnerships like tutoring schemes, other WPA-style programming, and enthusiastic funding from California, we can give our students a fighting chance. The solutions are right in front of us; all we need is the will.

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