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Four ways to close the 'homework gap'

Donald Trump makes the case as plainly as any candidate for president can. He wants to "Make America Great Again." From Trump to Bernie Sanders, Americans are looking for leaders to stop playing politics, shake things up and help them reclaim the American Dream.

Children work on computers at a computer learning center in a Kingsley Commons apartment complex in Falls Church, VA.
Jahi Chikwendiu | The Washington Post | Getty Images
Children work on computers at a computer learning center in a Kingsley Commons apartment complex in Falls Church, VA.

The problems are easy to see. Increasing college costs and student-loan debt are a weight around young Americans' ankles as they try to get started in the workforce, find life partners and buy homes. Unemployment has decreased and productivity has increased, but incomes have stayed flat. Candidates point fingers of blame at each other, but policy makers still have a chance to fix a few problems before politics takes over every decision made in DC.

The country is becoming more diverse, while our most dynamic industries are not. Silicon Valley is under a microscope as public policy makers, activists and customers have focused on the lack of diversity among their employees. Companies have been wrestling with hiring and retention strategies to jump-start a solution but over the longer term, we need more Americans in the pipeline with the skills to fill jobs in our high-tech sector. Getting them on the path to success at a young age is critical.

One way to make sure students from all backgrounds have the strongest start is by closing what Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel calls the "homework gap," which impacts students in five million American households. These students from low-income families have less regular access to broadband Internet at home than their peers from wealthier households, making completing homework assignments tougher.

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn has proposed revamping the Lifeline program as one way to help close this gap. Started during the Reagan administration, Lifeline was created to help low-income Americans get access to telephone service. As mobile phones became more ubiquitous, the George W. Bush administration expanded the program to allow Americans to choose wireless phone service under Lifeline. Today, broadband is the critical service that connects Americans to jobs, health care, entertainment and family, and the current FCC should allow the Lifeline program to evolve again.

In addition to expanding Lifeline to cover broadband, Internet Innovation Alliance, the organization I co-chair, has proposed four reforms that will make this program more effective for more American families:


1) Let the government make the eligibility determination and take it out of the hands of private company providers who may have improper incentives to increase enrollment.

2) Link eligibility to those who qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — 46 million Americans— which is administered by states. This would simplify the process for providers and consumers and make it more efficient.

3) Issue consumers a "Lifeline Benefit Card" to buy stand-alone or bundled wireline, wireless, or broadband services from the authorized companies that make sense for them.

4) Remove regulatory roadblocks to make it easier for service providers to participate in Lifeline and incentivize them to compete for the purchasing power of Lifeline customers.


Black and Latino students would benefit from closing the "Homework Gap" and increasing access to Lifeline, but so would thousands of children in military families who are struggling to make ends meet. Pinpointing the exact number of military families receiving food assistance is difficult, but according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than $84 million in food-stamp benefits was spent at military commissaries in 2014. That number doesn't include the amount these families spend in grocery stores and markets off base. Using USDA estimates, and pegging Lifeline access to SNAP, we would ensure that as many as 22,000 active duty members of the military and their families are eligible for this benefit.

Working together, Democrats and Republicans can improve efficiency for Lifeline, ensure communications access to those in need and keep costs under control. Fixing Lifeline is not as exciting as a reality TV star lambasting his opponents or news stories about email controversies, but fixing this problem can help real Americans fix real problems. Everybody wins and America can help get more students on the path to success.


Commentary by Jamal Simmons, a political analyst and a co-chairman of the DC-based Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA). He has worked as an aide on multiple presidential campaigns. Follow him on Twitter at @JamalSimmons