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As online schooling plays an increasingly large role in education, researchers say more work needs to be done to understand and address why some families have a harder time accessing the internet.

A new study shows that one reason is racial segregation.

Since before the pandemic, Benjamin Skinner has been researching broadband access and how lack of home internet impacts students’ ability to do online work. While studying this digital divide, Skinner, an assistant professor of higher education and policy at the University of Florida, noticed that conversation around the issue is often presented as an urban-rural divide. What no one talks enough about is that “we have a digital divide right within suburban and urban areas as well,” he said.

“There is a digital divide within areas that are geographically pretty proximate and they have real potential impacts for student’s geography of opportunity,” Skinner said.

Last summer, Skinner and his colleagues at University of Florida, faculty member Hazel Levy and doctoral candidate Taylor Burtch, began researching broadband history and differences in access. In a new paper, “Digital Redlining: The Relevance of 20th Century Housing Policy to 21st Century Broadband Access and Education,” the coauthors link disparities in current broadband access to Depression-era federal housing policies that prevented people in majority-Black neighborhoods from getting mortgages because their neighborhoods were considered“ high risk.” At the same time, the government helped developers build new suburban subdivisions exclusively for white people. The policy, known as redlining, fueled racial segregation and long-term disinvestment in Black communities.

“It’s important for us in education research to look at that history,” Skinner said. “Why might this be the case, and being able to tie that in to histories of redlining, histories of federal housing policies, of segregation.”

The researchers found evidence that “despite internet service providers reporting similar technological availability across neighborhoods, access to broadband in the home generally decreases in tandem with historic neighborhood risk classification.” Their research also revealed that differences in broadband vary depending on race, ethnicity and income levels.

“Students can live across the street from one another, can live just down the street from the university, down the street from the school and not have [internet] access,” Skinner said.

As Hechinger’s reporting has shown, in many cases the shift to remote learning worsened existing inequalities — none more pronounced than the digital divide. Nearly 17 million children nationwide were locked out of online learning because they didn’t have access to the high-speed home internet needed to participate. Many of these students came from low-income Black, Latino and Native American families.

Skinner argues that the U.S. government should own up to the role it has played in these disparities.

“It’s not that it’s just that people happen to still live in these neighborhoods and there happens to be differences and it’s this sort of choice, or sort of just thing to happen. We want to put active ownership on these policies,” he said. “It’s important for policymakers now, that if federal policy was part of setting up segregation in this period, there’s a responsibility on their behalf to redress, for helping to ameliorate some of these things now. These things being the disparities that we see in the visual and digital divide.”

Levy, the paper’s coauthor, said their research adds another element to existing studies on access gaps.

“There’s actually access allocation issues,” Levy said. “That’s not simply these access gaps that just naturally happen, that access is actually allocated. That there’s infrastructure in that allocated access, and that can be reinforced over long periods of time.”

In their research, Skinner and his colleagues used broadband access data available through the FCC and from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), in addition to digitized versions of the original redlining maps from the Mapping Inequality Project.

They note that policy makers cannot rely on only one data source to measure current broadband access nationwide. It’s hard to discern differences across certain neighborhoods looking only at FCC data, Skinner said. However, the disconnect becomes apparent when looking at the census data, which specifically asks people “do you have access to broadband in your home.”

This difference between what the FCC data reports and what the ACS data reports makes it hard to come up with a market-based solution, Skinner said. He added that there needs to be better measures of reporting broadband data.

“When you look at broadband access, as reported by Internet Service Providers [which FCC data relies on], I think it tells a different story than what people are actually experiencing,” Skinner said.

“What we show in our report is that place matters, and these historical disparities matter. It’s linked to identity, it’s linked to race, ethnicity, it’s linked to income, it’s all of these pieces. These connections between these pieces matter,” he added.

This story about digital redlining was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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