America’s Students—and Its Economy—Need Reliable Internet Now
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush explains how expanding broadband connectivity can “help people rise up”
“America is still a developing nation in many ways,” former Florida governor Jeb Bush wrote in a recent essay published by Slate. “We have room to run! But right now, our lives move at the speed of our internet connection.”
In too much of the country that connection is slow to nonexistent. Bush is deeply worried that a lack of reliable broadband is holding back our economy. And as classes have moved largely online due to the covid-19 pandemic, the broadband access gap is harming students.
Education was Bush’s signature issue as governor, and he’s still a fierce advocate for better schools and more rigorous classes. His initiative Excel in Ed has become one of the leading voices for state-level education reform.
I’ve known Governor Bush for many years, so after the Slate essay was published I was eager to talk with him to understand why he sees broadband as crucial for educational equity and how he thinks we can get it done, finally tackling the “digital divide” identified over two decades ago by Larry Irving.
In your Slate essay, you wrote about the history of the interstate highway system, beginning with Dwight Eisenhower, who while serving as an Army major in the years after World War I, discovered how terrible the roads were after trying to drive a convoy across the country. What’s the parallel to broadband infrastructure today?
Dwight Eisenhower gets credit for the highway system because he so clearly saw the need for it. He was figuring out the logistics of how you get military equipment across the country, and he was appalled that the United States was simply not connected. The interstate highway system he envisioned was a big, hairy, audacious goal, just like nationwide broadband.
I think that analogy is pretty powerful if you think about the world we’re in today and how everything has been digitized. We need a digital infrastructure plan that would be similar to what the federal government launched for the highways. It’s not exclusively a federal role. There are state and local funds and public-private partnerships for the infrastructure that allows us to get around, get goods to market, get children to school. Those kinds of partnerships have worked well for a long time when it comes to roads. It’s time to do the same thing for online infrastructure.
There’s a lot of focus on broadband as a necessity for remote schooling, but you’ve argued it’s an even broader issue of equal opportunity.
Broadband has to be part of the national strategy to help people rise up. If you can’t access broadband, you’re basically cast aside in the modern economy. We have businesses that are thriving because they’re connected to the digital infrastructure, people who are thriving because they can work and access education and health care from home. We’re seeing an explosion in health technologies that require broadband, and education is going to be enhanced by online access long after the coronavirus pandemic is over. If you’re cut off from all of those things, you’re cut off from opportunity. There’s a lot of concern about the haves and have-nots in our society today. Those gaps are real, and providing broadband for rural areas, providing digital devices for families living at or near the poverty level, would help narrow them.
What’s holding us back from fixing this? Is it the cost?
We have the resources to do this. That’s what’s frustrating—this should have already been done.
Look, I find it tiring when I hear politicians talk about investment when what they actually mean is spending, a recurring expense. This is a true investment: one-time money that would have long-term benefits. If you took $100 billion [in federal money] and created a means for local communities and states to provide additional support, and you had philanthropies that could provide support, and you have businesses that are anxious to help, you could leverage this money up to a significant number. Some of it is going to be paid for just by businesses and people using it and getting the benefits of the new infrastructure. People at or near the poverty level would receive subsidies, just as we do today with the E-Rate program, which helps schools and libraries afford high-speed internet. You’d use some of the money not just for the backbone infrastructure, but also to train people. A lot of people wouldn’t know what to do if they had the access to high-velocity broadband, so you’d have to provide some support for devices.
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Hector Medrano helps his son Angel, 8, with distance learning while in their RV on October 09, in Phoenix. Inconsistent work, a string of tragedies, and family separation have pushed the Medranos to the brink of homelessness during the pandemic.
As you look at what’s happening with schools nationally trying to manage remote learning with such uneven access to high-speed internet, what are your biggest concerns?
There’s huge concern about the equity issues. Right now, you have millions of kids at home or in hybrid education, and at the same you have more than 400,000 teachers who don’t have access to broadband and a whole lot of students who don’t have access to a device that allows them to learn. You can’t do it on a smartphone, it’s just too hard.
I’ve talked to a ton of people about this issue. It’s just so upsetting to see school districts around the country say, “Well, if we can’t provide it to everybody, we’re not going to provide it at all.” The learning loss has been horrible.
The world is moving at warp speed away from traditional learning, and if you can’t access high-speed broadband, you’re going to be stuck in the mud.
What are some of the changes to education that will outlast the pandemic?
In education we basically have an agricultural calendar with an industrial model, and almost all other institutions in our society have gone way past that. I think you’re seeing glimpses of a new system that would be liberating for teachers and exciting for students, and a critical part of that would be solving this digital equity issue. Homework should be done in the classroom, and classwork should be done at home. And that’s not possible if you can’t have access to broadband and the devices that allow you to do that.
A 21st-century education system should be customized for the student. Students should learn at their own pace in their own way, and we shouldn’t hold them back. If they can master the material at a faster pace, we should give them the chance to do it. The rigid system we have today holds back a lot of students but also pushes kids along who don’t master the material, and that’s a tragedy that unfolds for years in a student’s life. How do we protect accountability and move to a new assessment model that allows for this type of learning to take place? It’s not easy. You could end up losing accountability and not get to this promised land of a student-focused system. It’s a big challenge.
You look at so many other elements of our lives where there have been big changes with potential benefits—in health care, in business, in technology. You would think that maybe education would be so important that some of the changes that have happened elsewhere would apply to K-12. I think some of the disruptions that could provide great benefits and more social equity are not just on the horizon, but pretty close.
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Jeb Bush, then a Republican presidential candidate, speaks to students during a town hall-style meeting at La Progresiva Presbyterian School on September 1, 2015 in Miami, Florida.
You mentioned accountability and assessment. They have become flashpoints in the debate about education. Why do you think there’s so much angst about accountability measures right now?
You see reactionaries on the left and the right pushing back on assessment. There’s a convergence now of people on the right emphasizing local control and no top-down measures at all, and on the left people saying no accountability for equity reasons. So that coalition has real energy behind them. But the reality is that accountability helps students of color, helps low-income kids far more than affluent students. There has to be some form of accountability, and how you assess students within that system is the challenge. But if you don’t measure, you’re going to leave people behind.
Do you see a future for the education reform movement?
I openly acknowledge this is not easy work. We’re in a very bad political environment right now where getting bigger things done is hard. I think elected officials perceive that the downside of doing big things is greater than the upside potential of just doing it because it’s the right thing to do.
There’s a growing number of people who want their elected officials to understand their grievances. They want them to feel their anger and their angst. Those are all legitimate impulses in the world we’re in today, where the trust that existed for institutions has diminished to the point where people feel like they’re alone. In that environment, education reform is harder. We need to get back to a place where people running for office and in positions of authority are rewarded for sound policy, for doing what they think is right and sticking with it.
That’s not always popular. The reforms we did in Florida I don’t think ever polled especially high. But what people figured out is that our graduation rate went up every year, and our test results are some of the best in the country. The results are what matter, and over the long haul. Some of those reforms took 15 or 20 years, and if you’re an elected official you’re only there for eight. Short-term thinking seems to dominate these days more than it used to.
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Chromebooks lie out after being cleaned in preparation for the Sept. 8 start of school at Newfield Elementary School on August 31, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut.
How do we get out of that spiral? What gives you some hope as you look ahead?
Our politics is a reflection of our culture, and our culture is changing. The culture of the 1960s, which is what defined my generation, has run its course. The Baby Boomer counterculture that became the dominant culture in our society has run out of gas. There will be a cultural change. It’s happening. And it will be driven by younger people and the values they believe, and out of that could come all sorts of wonderful things. Or it could get worse, I don’t know! But our politics is embedded in our culture. It’s not some extraneous ecosystem—it’s us. If we tolerate the politics that we have, if we accept it, we’re going to get more of what we see. If we don’t, we can change it. That requires a new way of thinking, culturally rather than politically.
You’ve made education a centerpiece of your political career and your advocacy since leaving office. Was there a particular teacher who made a big difference in your life, who really lit a fire about the power of education?
My Spanish teacher, Angel Rubio. He made us read the great works in Spanish—Miguel de Unamuno and Jorge Luis Borges. I didn’t think I could do it, but I did. I mastered it because he made all of his students believe we could do far more than we thought, which is important in life. We have God-given abilities, and a lot of time we impose limits on our potential for all sorts of reasons without even thinking about it. Great teachers push those limits up and show you that you can do far more than you think you can. That’s been a godsend for my life.
Plus, I met my wife when I went to that school, and my life was changed forever. If I hadn’t been able to speak a little bit of Spanish, I probably wouldn’t have been able to convince her to marry me.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.