How the Digital Divide Impacts Charter School Students in the Age of COVID-19

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Nationwide, approximately 9 million students lack access to connectivity or devices. This lack of access widens the already substantial gap between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds—and for charter school students that gap may be even more pronounced.

After the coronavirus pandemic led to mass school closures, it quickly became clear that some students are at a disadvantage in digital learning—specifically those who are without access to the technology and internet connectivity that facilitates remote learning. The new normal in education is remote learning and if students don’t have the tools to learn remotely then achievement and attainment gaps based on income and race may be exacerbated.  

We found this particularly concerning and sought to better understand the barriers students might face in accessing remote learning opportunities, especially considering charter schools serve a higher percentage of underserved students than district schools.

To be certain, we needed to look at the data available. Here is what we found when we dug into the data:

Almost a quarter of charter schools operate in low connectivity census tracts

While there is limited data available on student access to devices and connectivity at the school level, we can approximate by using the American Community Survey (ACS) and the census tract in which a school is located. We consider a census tract to have low access to devices or connectivity if a third or more households do not have access to any type of device or connectivity.

The first key finding is that a higher percentage of charter schools are located in census tracts with low connectivity—23 percent—as compared to district schools. This lends credence to our initial hypothesis that charter schools would be more affected by remote learning than other public schools due to the students they serve.

Charter school students are at least 2x more likely to be enrolled in a school located in a low device access area

Another key finding is that there is a higher percentage of charter school students who attend schools in census tracts with low access to devices than those who attend district schools.

Unfortunately, the data is less compelling here because ACS data counts smartphones as devices which skews the numbers lower. Though if you’ve had to work on a smartphone, it isn’t easy.

Charter school students are less likely to access connectivity at high rates

The ACS data also shows that charter school students are less likely than their district school counterparts to access connectivity at high rates. In 31 of the 44 states charter schools operate in, 20 percent or more of charter school students lack connectivity. This incidence of low access is more concentrated in certain states and cities.

As a result of our findings and adding in the estimate of students in all schools—regardless of census tracts—our estimate is that charter schools need $243 million to address unmet device and connectivity needs for their students in a single school year.

With the prevailing uncertainty around schools reopening and a question around whether they will have to close again, we can’t leave the digital divide unchecked. Our students deserve better.


Nathan Barrett, Ph.D., is the senior director of research and evaluation at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Adam Gerstenfeld is the manager of data and research at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.


Read the full report, Closing the Digital Divide: What Policymakers Need to Know.