Josephine Walker

Legislation hopes to expand broadband access for low-income students

By Josephine Walker, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia General Assembly passed legislation in an effort to expand broadband internet access to low-income students across the commonwealth. 

Senate Bill 1225, proposed by Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, authorizes school boards to appropriate funds to partner with private companies for the purpose of implementing and subsidizing broadband internet access for low-income and at-risk students. 

“Distance learning during the pandemic has left these students struggling not just with homework but with classwork and lessons as well,” Boysko said before a House panel.

The reduced rate broadband would be eligible for students who qualify for child nutrition programs and other programs that are recognized by the school board as a measure to identify at-risk students. That means programs that are funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, such as the schools’ breakfast, lunch and after school snack programs.

These broadband programs already exist, but Boysko said the bill clarifies that school boards can enter into partnerships with private broadband companies and permits the companies to promote the service. Boysko said there are nearly 600,000 students who qualify for those supplemental programs, though 215,000 people are currently utilizing them.

One plan offered to qualifying families is $9.95 a month, according to a Comcast representative who spoke in favor of the bill. 

Phillip Lovell, vice president for policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education said students without access to reliable technology are experiencing the brunt of the pandemics’ drawbacks.

 “If you don't have high-speed home Internet, and if you don't have a device, then you are in a world of hurt,” Lovell said. 

More than 20% of households in Virginia lack high-speed internet, according to a recent analysis by Future Ready Schools, a research project of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a national nonprofit committed to improving education outcomes. This translates to almost 394,000 children without an efficient network to complete their instruction. The same organization reports that over 200,000 students are without internet in households that earn below $50,000 annually. Future Ready Schools also found that 8% of Virginia households have no computer devices. This impacts over 140,000 students. 

Lovell said access to a cell phone instead of a computer is an insufficient way of learning. He challenged adversaries to complete work without access to a desktop.

“They should try to write a five-page research paper on any topic they would like … and try to do it on their cell phone,” Lovell said.

Disparities in academic performance can be seen within different races, income levels, English-language proficiency, learning disabilities and sex, according to Education Week, a news organization devoted to education news. 

Lower-income students are less likely to have access to a quality remote learning environment; devices that they do not need to share; high-speed broadband internet; and parental supervision during school hours, according to Mckinsey and Co., a consulting firm to governments and organizations.

Rural students are also suffering from a lack of broadband internet access.

Keith Perrigan, president of the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools of Virginia, said during a Fund Our Schools virtual rally earlier in the week that access to broadband internet is perhaps the biggest equity issue faced by the state’s rural students. Fund Our Schools is a coalition of education advocates that work to increase Virginia public schools funding.

“Students are driving 10, 12, 15 miles to get to their nearest Dollar General who will allow them to sit in the parking lot and tap onto the Wi-Fi,” Perrigan said. “And you have students in other parts of the state that sit in their living room and have access to the internet at their disposal all the time.” 

Boysko said her bill is not going to solve the problem of rural broadband infrastructure. Other bills will expand access to infrastructure building. She said the bill is primarily for urban and suburban areas where families can’t afford to pay for the internet but there’s existing broadband infrastructure in place.

Both the House and Senate budget bills propose $50 million per year from the general fund for two years for the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative. The funds will supplement the construction costs of expanding access to areas that are presently unserved by broadband providers. The Department of Housing and Community Development will work with the Broadband Advisory Council to designate unserved areas that require funds. 

Boysko also sponsored SB1413 that will make permanent a pilot program that permits some electric utility companies to petition the State Corporation Commission to provide broadband capacity to unserved areas of the state.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Lawmakers Pass Bills to Collect Data on Pretrial Detention

By Josephine Walker, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia General Assembly passed legislation this week that lawmakers said will increase transparency and equity in the judicial system, which disproportionately impacts communities of color.

The bills, introduced by Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, and Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, will create a centralized, publicly-accessible data collection system on pretrial detention. Senate Bill 1391 and House Bill 2110 both passed Thursday.

Pretrial detention is the practice of holding a defendant in jail until trial. It is used, officials say, to guarantee the defendant appears in court and to ensure public safety. The compiled pretrial data would be distributed annually by the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission, or VCSC. 

The bills require the VCSC to compile and share data on the sex, age, race and zip code of an individual charged with a crime. The individual’s criminal background will also be included in the report without their name. No case identifying information could be accessed through the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, or made publicly available, per the bills.

Maisie Osteen, an attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center, said the bills are a tremendous opportunity to understand release conditions like bond or pretrial services. She said they also illuminate trends in the racial, gender and economic demographics of people in jail. 

“This is the heart of transparency,” Osteen said. “It's opening up the actual raw data to the public in a downloadable, accessible format.” In Virginia, 46% of the total jail population is being held pretrial, according to the Legal Aid Justice Center.

Lucas and Herring drafted the bills at the Virginia State Crime Commission's recommendation. The lawmakers used data from the commission’s 2017 Pretrial Data Project, which sought to study the different types of release mechanisms involved in pretrial services, such as bond or pretrial holdings. Of the individuals included in the data, 40% were Black, though this group makes up 20% of the commonwealth’s total population. 

Cherise Fanno Burdeen, an executive partner at the Pretrial Justice Institute, said the commission’s new role was the first step in creating a more equitable Virginia. The institute provides information on current criminal justice issues and works to reform pretrial policies.

“The point of the bill is for advocates to take what they already knew was true about the way the system operates in terms of its disproportionate impact on communities of color,” Burdeen said. “And surely, its disproportionate impact on poor Virginians of all races.”

Being in jail before trial can drastically destabilize the accused and their families, according to a 2020 National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA) study. The research found that as a result of pretrial detention people were more likely to lose connections to employment, housing and family. 

Osteen said most people are held pretrial because they can’t make bail and are more likely to have non salaried employment. She said they stand a greater chance of losing employment after a few days of being unable to report to work. This financial instability can then lead to a loss of housing or loss of children.

The NLADA study also found that those held in pretrial detention are more likely to be rearrested for new crimes, and more likely to have longer prison sentences. 

Osteen said that when a judge sees a defendant who “looks like a criminal” it can lead to harsher sentencing.

“I've heard judges say, honestly, ‘It's just easier to send somebody to prison if they show up in a prison or jail outfit, then I already know they've been plucked from their lives,’” Osteen said.

She said the judges are less likely to feel as if sentencing is the destabilization factor because it has already happened to the defendant.

Osteen said she is excited by the potential impact data collection will have on understanding the commonwealth’s justice system. She wishes the legislation included information about why judges decide to detain a defendant or not, a standard not currently required, Osteen said.

According to the VCSC, this legislation will cause a significant increase in the agency’s workload. The agency expects it will need additional funding to finance two new salaried positions.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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