Social Welfare

When Divides Collide: How COVID-19 Has Further Exposed the Link Between the Digital Divide and the Education Gap

Schuyler Troy, MJLST Staffer

As we enter what public health experts warn will be the worst phase yet of the coronavirus pandemic, many Americans have been forced to reckon with the world of remote work—as of June 2020, 42 percent of the U.S. work force was working from home full time. Zoom, the now-ubiquitous video teleconferencing platform, saw an increase in meeting participation from approximately 10 million daily participants in December 2019 to at least 200 million by the end of March 2020. Zoom snafus have taken their place in the cultural zeitgeist, ranging from relatively harmless and even humorous technical snafus to more serious issues like “Zoombombing” and privacy concerns.

Among the more serious problems coming into sharper focus is the effect that remote learning has had on school-aged children, their parents, and their teachers. Without a national strategy regarding how to reopen schools for in-person instruction, states and localities were left to devise what ultimately became a patchwork of solutions. As of September 2, 2020, 73 percent of the largest school districts in the United States had chosen to offer only remote instruction at least to start the year, affecting more than 8 million students.

Early data from this massive shift to remote instruction has revealed some worrying signs. A majority of teachers across the United States report that fewer than half of their students are attending remote classes; 34 percent of teachers report that only 1 in 4 students are attending remote classes. Perhaps more distressing is the data showing stagnation in academic progress. Researchers at Brown University and Harvard University analyzed data gathered for over 800,000 students across the United States and found that through late April 2020, “student progress in math had decreased by about half in classrooms located in low-income ZIP codes, [and] by a third in classrooms in middle-income ZIP codes” as compared to a typical school year. An analysis by McKinsey & Company indicates that the effects on Black and Hispanic students could be even more pronounced.

While racial and socioeconomic education achievement gaps are not new, the shift to remote instruction nationwide appears to have exacerbated them. Pew Research data provides some clues as to one factor that may be driving this phenomenon: lack of access to reliable, high-speed Internet that is necessary for videoconferencing and online coursework. As of 2019, 61 percent of Hispanic Americans and 66 percent of Black Americans used broadband to access the Internet, as compared to 79 percent of white Americans. Only 56 percent of Americans making under $30,000 per year had access to broadband Internet at home, as compared to 92 percent of Americans making over $75,000. Rural communities, which tend to have higher poverty rates than urban and suburban communities, are also less likely to have access to broadband Internet; only 63 percent of rural communities had access to broadband Internet, as compared to 75 percent of urban communities and 79 percent of suburban communities.

Taken together, the data paints a clear and rather sobering picture: remote instruction is leaving some of America’s most vulnerable students even further behind than before.

Congress has taken action in recent years to address the broadband access disparity with the Digital Equity Act, introduced in the Senate in 2019 but not yet passed, which would require the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to establish grant programs promoting digital equity and inclusion, and building capacity for state governments to increase adoption of broadband by their residents. President-elect Joe Biden also pledged throughout the 2020 presidential campaign to expand access to broadband Internet through infrastructure plans and subsidies to low-income Americans who cannot afford broadband. With seeming bipartisan agreement, a rarity in today’s polarized Congress, the United States may be on track to begin closing the digital divide. How that affects the education gap is yet to be seen, but there is good reason to believe closing the digital divide will help narrow the education gap as well.

Pandemics are fairly rare, but they are near impossible to predict, either in frequency or severity. The world was caught off-guard by COVID-19, but the lessons learned, including the lessons on remote instruction, can and should endure. Further, remote instruction is now another metaphorical “tool in the belt” for school districts; many districts are now considering eliminating snow days and replacing them with remote instruction. The sooner there is action on bridging the digital divide, the better the chances that students have to maintain their learning goals.

In Space We Trust: Regulate the Race

By: Hannah Payne, MJLST Staffer

In 1999, the UN General Assembly launched “World Space Week,” an annual celebration observed from October 4th (the date of Sputnik’s launch in 1957) to October 10th (the day The Outer Space Treaty entered into force in 1967). This year’s theme was “Space Unites the World.” The UN said the theme “celebrates the role of space in bringing the world closer together.” Unfortunately, the words ring hollow in light of the U.S.’s Space Force plans, as well as the recent escalation of inter-planetary militarization by China, Russia and the EU. Additionally, activities of SpaceX and others raise concerns about privatization, space pollution and the plans of the uber-wealthy to leave the world behind. These forces threaten to marginalize the awe-inspiring exploration of space into a scheme concerned only with war, profit, and advancing inequality. The dominance of such interests calls for a coherent system of global space regulation.

Some have observed that many recent activities violate the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which declared: “The exploration and use of outer space . . . shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind.” The treaty also states that space and all celestial bodies are unowned and open to exploration by all. The U.S. and over 100 countries signed and ratified it, and America did not reserve the right to alter its obligations, as it often does in agreements. However, with no real international enforcement mechanism and our ceaseless profit-seeking, countries have—and will continue to—disregard the goals of the 1967 agreement. Last year, Ted Cruz expressed excitement that “the first trillionaire will be made in space.” He proposed amending the treaty to foster commercialization – and correct its erroneous assumption that worthy goals exist besides wealth and power. His motive seems to be formalistic, as was Congress’ in 2015 when it declared in the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act that “the United States does not, by enactment of this Act, assert sovereignty . . . exclusive rights . . . or ownership of, any celestial body[,]” but in the same act granted U.S. citizens the right to own and sell any “space resource.” Though the U.S. track record of treaty violations makes their disregard of the agreement perhaps unsurprising, the serious consequences of space militarization and privatization call for critical advancement in space regulation.

From an environmental law perspective, the language of the 1967 treaty evokes the seldom-used Public Trust Doctrine (PTD). Traced back to the Roman era, the Public Trust Doctrine is described as “requir[ing] government stewardship of the natural resources upon which society . . . depends for continued existence.” The PTD places the government/sovereign as the trustee, obligated to protect the rights of the public/beneficiary in the trust, which is comprised of things like navigable waterways. It has mostly been applied to water rights, and successfully reclaimed property for the “public good” in Illinois and California. However, in 2012 the Supreme Court suggested that the PTD is no stronger than state common law. Even so, the doctrine should be remembered by those who think the privileged cannot, by right, hoard or destroy resources – including those in space. In the 1970s, Joseph Sax argued for the PTD’s use as sweeping environmental common law. Some have since theorized about the extension of the PTD to space. These scholars identify issues such as the lack of a sovereign to act as trustee. That problem would not likely be solved by allowing every country to exert self-interested sovereignty in space. At least no one has been so bold as to outright claim the moon – yet.

The PTD is just one tool that may be useful in designing a peaceful move forward. The Expanse, a near-future science fiction series in which humanity has colonized the solar system, offers a thought-provoking look ahead. Earth and the moon are governed by the UN. Mars is a sovereign as well, and the asteroid belt a colonial structure with fractured governance. Space is highly commercialized and militarized, and personal opportunity is hard to come by – but humanity has avoided self-destruction. Their global governance allows for some cooperation between Earth and Mars in space. Depending on one’s dreams of the future, the situation represents an overpopulated, inefficiently run hellscape – or a less-bad option out of the possibilities that now seem likely. It begs the question – how do we expand while avoiding astronomical inequality and self-destruction?

Perhaps it is nearly impossible, but Earth needs real, global regulation of outer space. A weak U.N. cannot do it; private companies and wealthy countries should not be given free reign to try. Last month, the U.N. held the First United Nations Conference on Space Law and Policy.  It’s good to see the international community ramping up these discussions. Hopefully, the PTD’s underlying philosophy of equitable preservation will be central to the conversation. Done right, the exploration of space could be the most inspiring, community-building, and even profitable experience for humanity. If approached thoughtfully, inclusively, carefully –  we could have much more than just a Space Force.

Haiti, Hurricanes and Holes in Disaster Law

Amy Johns, MJLST Staffer

The state of national disaster relief is one that depends greatly on the country and that country’s funds. Ryan S. Keller’s article, “Keeping Disaster Human: Empathy, Systematization, and the Law,” argues that proposed legal changes to the natural disaster laws (both national and international) could have negative consequences for the donative funding of disaster relief. In essence, he describes a potential trade–off: do we want to risk losing the money that makes disaster relief possible, for the sake of more effectively designating and defining disasters? These calculations are particularly critical for countries that rely heavily on foreign aid to recover after national disasters.

In light of recent tragedies, I would point to a related difficulty: what happens when the money is provided, but because of a lack of accountability or governing laws, the funds never actually make it to their intended purposes? Drumming up financial support is all well and good, but what if the impact is never made because there are no legal and institutional supports in place?

Keller brings up a common reason to improve disaster relief law: “efforts to better systematize disaster may also better coordinate communication procedures and guidelines.” There is a fundamental difficulty in disaster work when organizations don’t know exactly what they are supposed to be doing. A prime example of the lack of communication and guidelines has been seen in Haiti, in which disaster relief efforts are largely dependent on foreign aid. The fallout from Hurricane Matthew has resurrected critiques of the 2010 earthquake response—most prominent was the claim of the Red Cross to build 130,000 homes, when in fact it only built six. Though the Red Cross has since disputed these claims, this fiasco pointed to an extreme example of NGOs’ lack of accountability to donors. Even when such efforts go as planned and are successful, the concern among many is that such efforts build short—term solutions without helping to restructure institutions that will last beyond the presence of these organizations.

Could legal regulations fix problems of accountability in disaster relief? If so, the need for those considerations is imminent: climate change means that similar disasters are likely to occur with greater frequency, so the need for effective long-term solutions will only become more pressing.