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Why Net Neutrality Matters for K-12 Education

Last week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released its plan to dismantle the Obama Administration’s 2015 net neutrality rules. These rules prevent broadband providers from selectively blocking access or slowing connections to specific sites. Defenders of net neutrality tout its importance for innovation, transparency, and democracy.

In many cases, their business models depend on it: for example, Google does not want Verizon to have the option of offering its customers faster access to search engines it owns, while charging customers who wish to get the same speed from a Google search. The most prominent opponents of net neutrality are Internet service providers, the companies that control access to the Web, and that could profit by cutting deals for preferential treatment.

Lost in the neutrality debate is the impact the Trump administration's proposed change could have on American education: An open, affordable Internet is crucial to ensuring all students have access to educational opportunities in and out of school. Beyond that, the regulatory process leading up to the Trump administration's move has been deeply problematic, and could have repercussions for key education issues beyond the net neutrality debate if it isn't addressed.

Even under net neutrality, we’re far from a level playing field: Lots of students and schools still lack high-speed access. Public school high-speed Internet access dramatically expanded under the federal E-Rate program, but almost a quarter of (disproportionately rural) school districts still fell short of meeting the minimum federal standards. And home access is unsurprisingly linked to family income: Survey findings suggest that a third of families living in poverty lack a home Internet connection, relying on mobile-only access.

For those who do have home connections, the Internet provides relatively equal opportunities for low-cost out-of-school enrichment. Across the country, kids are using YouTube to to make slime and learn guitar, regardless of whether they can pay for “fast lane” access or which cable or Internet provider they have in their homes. So educators should not be appeased if Internet providers cut special deals that maintain something like net neutrality inside school buildings.

Netflix also provides a wealth of educational options. Families who can’t afford “tolls” for the enrichment allowed by streaming video certainly won’t be able to replace those virtual activities with their costlier in-real-life counterparts. And public libraries, a key institution for leveling up opportunity to learn, rely on net neutrality as well.

Distressing as the prospect of losing net neutrality is for student learning, it’s only part of the story for education and democracy: The administrative process leading up to the decision on net neutrality is itself disturbing. In April, after the FCC issued a public notice of its intent to repeal net neutrality, the agency received hundreds of thousands of fraudulent public comments, submitted under the names of real people who didn’t write them.

New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman launched an investigation on behalf of the New York residents whose identities were stolen in the process, as he recently described in his open letter to FCC Chair Ajit Pai. Data scientist Jeff Kao then published his own text analysis of public comments: He found more than a million spammed comments, and concluded that about 99 percent of what he terms organic comments—legitimate, original comments, not generated by spam-bots or part of organized campaigns—were in support of net neutrality.

As Eloise Pasachoff and I have argued, the notice and comment process is an integral part of transparency in the democratic process. The Education Department currently has plenty of high-profile regulatory issues on its plate, from racial disproportionality in school discipline to borrowers’ defense against repayment, gainful employment, and Title IX.

In the summer of 2016, the Obama administration’s Education Department received more than 21,000 comments on regulating the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—and that seemed like a lot compared to the No Child Left Behind Act’s 700.

Elizabeth Mann’s analysis of the ESSA comments identified over a third of them as based on boilerplate text from the National Education Association. This seems quaint in comparison to the bots’ contributions to the net neutrality comments. And the available evidence suggests the ESSA comments were submitted by actual, living people whose worst offense was cutting and pasting.

Education advocates should pay attention to net neutrality because it is an important way to promote more equal access to educational opportunities. But the hijacking of public comments leading up to the FCC's move is no less problematic. Given that many key education policies rely on regulation rather than Congressional lawmaking, we should be wary that the regulatory process is vulnerable to manipulation.