Earlier this month, President Joe Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework. Although the $1.2 trillion dollar package aims to improve our nation’s roads, rails, energy grids, and broadband backbone, it also provides important resources for protecting student privacy and ensuring that all students have equitable access to technology. The Infrastructure Act also gives schools and educational institutions the opportunity to help shape important federal programs under the Act. Three provisions under the Act will help ensure that students can access learning online without sacrificing their privacy:
- Secure broadband and devices means more privacy for students. The Infrastructure Act includes funds for states, local governments, and community anchor institutions like schools, libraries, and housing authorities to build out broadband access and provide devices to underserved and unserved communities. Not only will the Act help ensure that more students and families have access to technology, it also has the potential to help protect student privacy by giving students and families more choice and more control over their technology. Access to broadband at home will mean that students will no longer have to rely on public Wi-Fi networks that lack critical privacy and security protections. Similarly, increased access to personal devices will give more students and families alternatives to school-issued devices, which may include software that monitors activity on the device.
- The Infrastructure Act supports cybersecurity at the local level. K-12 public schools have increasingly become the target of sophisticated cyberattacks, ranging from Zoombombing during remote learning to ransomware attacks that can leave school systems frozen. Earlier this fall, Congress took a step forward by vesting the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency with responsibility to investigate K-12 cybersecurity. As CDT has pointed out, grappling with K-12 cybersecurity will require deep expertise with the complex landscape of education data systems. The Infrastructure Act draws on that expertise, as it requires states that receive cybersecurity grants to work with a variety of stakeholders and to include representatives from public education in planning committees to implement the grants.
- The law supports important training, digital literacy, and digital equity programs. Providing access to technology alone is insufficient to ensure that all students have equitable access to online learning. Students and families need digital literacy training to ensure they have the skills to protect their privacy and security and to make the most of online resources. The Infrastructure Act’s digital equity provisions, known as the Digital Equity Act, recognize and support the diverse digital literacy needs of students, families, and communities. The Digital Equity Act provides funds for state agencies, cities, school districts, and community anchor institutions such as schools and libraries to establish programs to better connect people of color, with disabilities, living in poverty, or facing a language barrier. Under the Digital Equity Act, those programs can include efforts to provide:
- Access to reliable broadband internet and internet-connected devices;
- Digital literacy training, defined as “the skills associated with using technology to enable users to find, evaluate, organize, create, and communicate information”;
- Quality technical support; and
- Basic awareness of measures to ensure online privacy and cybersecurity.
Each of those resources plays a critical role in ensuring that students and families have the skills to navigate online privately and safely.
Critically, the Act prioritizes engagement from stakeholders, like students and families, to inform policy decisions that shape these critical programs. Education data systems flow across all levels of government and may involve sharing with other agencies to provide transportation, nutrition, healthcare, and other services to students. Education data is likewise subject to a variety of federal laws and more than 140 state student privacy laws, creating a complex environment for practitioners. Critically, the Infrastructure Act provides multiple opportunities for school leaders and communities to help develop federal programs around broadband, devices, and digital equity:
- Grants to states for building broadband infrastructure require the states to coordinate with local governments, including the ability for “political subdivisions” of each state to submit plans for the states’ consideration and to comment on the states’ proposals. Although the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will define the exact rules of this process, “political subdivisions” of states typically include school districts, and student privacy practitioners will likely have a role to play in shaping these grants.
- States receiving cybersecurity grants must establish planning committees to implement the grants, which must include representatives from public education.
- The Digital Equity Act permits schools and local education agencies to apply for grants from the NTIA to support digital literacy, inclusion, and equity.
The Infrastructure Act is a generational investment not only in our roads and bridges, but in our education and technology infrastructure as well. The Act will provide funds for schools and other educational institutions to help secure student privacy and ensure equitable access to technology. However, the technical and policy landscape around student privacy and education technology is complex; schools and educational institutions have valuable expertise in education data and technology and should take advantage of the opportunity to shape the equity and privacy provisions of the Infrastructure Act.