Millions of American students don’t have access to high speed internet at home, putting them at an educational disadvantage. On Wednesday, president Barack Obama began his two-day visit to Oklahoma by unveiling a new plan to bring internet service into low income households.
The president was met with applause and introduced himself with the Choctaw greeting “Halito” at Durant High School in the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.
Obama checked off some of the accomplishments under his administration --- like private sector job growth, a stronger housing market and more insured Americans. That, he said, is the good news.
“But I also made it clear when I came into office, even as we’re trying to make sure the entire economy recovers, we also have to pay attention to those communities that all too often have been neglected and fallen behind,” Obama said. “And as part of that, I said, ‘We’re going to do better by our First Americans. We’re going to do better.’”
Obama laid out plans Wednesday night for his ConnectHome initiative, which seeks to provide free or low cost broadband service to low income households.
The president cited statistics that found more than 90 percent of households headed by a college graduate use the internet, but fewer than half of households without a high school degree have access.
“So in other words, the people who could benefit the most from the latest technology are the least likely to have it,” the president said.
Students without internet at home struggle to type papers, do online homework assignments or communicate with teachers from home.
“You may have to wait in long lines at public libraries or even in parking lots at the local McDonalds just to get digital access,” Obama said. “What that means is you’re not learning the critical tech skills required to succeed in tomorrow’s economy.”
That creates what he calls “the homework” gap, which the president said leads to gaps in learning and opportunities.
Obama said the United States will start falling behind countries like South Korea, where a higher percentage of the population has access to high-speed internet.
“It’s American ingenuity that created the internet, that created all these technologies. And the notion that now we’d leave some Americans behind in being able to use that while other countries are racing ahead --- that’s a recipe for disaster,” he said.
He estimates about 200,000 children will be able to get home internet through the program, which will work with internet providers to offer free or discounted service to families in public and assisted housing in the Choctaw Nation and twenty-seven other U.S. communities.
Obama singled out 16-year-old Kelsey Janway, a driven young member of the Choctaw Nation.
“This might be a game-changer for her. When she was younger, her family only got phone reception if they stood on a particular rock in the yard or on the top window sill in their bathroom,” Obama said.
Janway still has spotty internet service at home, and it’s just as bad at school. A nearby school has better service, which Obama says gives those students an advantage that Janway doesn’t have.
The president said he and the First Lady have a special obligation to make sure tribal youth have every opportunity to achieve their potential.
“That all of you, young people, have a chance to succeed, not by leaving your communities but by coming back and investing in your communities,” the president said.
One of those young tribal members who wants to stay in her community is Sunday Plumb, a member of the Cherokee Nation from Tahlequah. She was one of about 15 young people who met with with Obama before he took the stage. Plumb told the president she would like to see more resources to improve the Native college graduation rate.
“I know in our community, if you don’t go to the Native American high school, which is run by the Cherokee Nation, you will go to a rural public school or public school and you’re just not prepared for it at all,” Plumb said.
Plumb is now poised to graduate with a degree in animal science from the University of Arkansas. She wants to come back to her community, and she’s considering running for tribal office.
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