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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Smartphones widen rift in education equality

‘My teacher lets kids bring their phones to class so they can look stuff up on the Internet,” my seventh-grader told me recently. I was surprised. My son attends a public school.

I thought back to the supply list we’d printed last summer. It didn’t specify a smartphone. Alongside the requisite No. 2 pencils, various colors of pens, graph paper and three-ring binders, the only high-priced item I remember was a scientific calculator that can presumably do amazing things, like plot your escape route to Mars if you’re bored in math class.

While I bought that calculator, I didn’t have to. The school keeps calculators available for in-class loan – helpful for families who can’t easily spare the money, and those students who frequently forget their calculators at home.

But our public school doesn’t outfit its classrooms with smartphones. It also doesn’t provide tablets, laptops or even desktop computers in every classroom so students can access the Internet for class-related research.

I think that would be a great idea but it’s obviously cost-prohibitive without some sizable sponsorship dollars. Bake sales and craft shows just don’t raise enough money for that kind of classroom supply when it’s hard enough to keep them stocked with glue sticks.

Internet accessible devices must be shared across the whole school when they aren’t already in use for standardized testing. Most classrooms must do without, as must my son.

He doesn’t have a smartphone. Neither does his older brother, who is in high school. Our college freshman got hers after high school graduation.

Of course, our youngest has asked for a smartphone off and on for about a year. All the kids on his soccer team have them, after all. But we have no urge to keep up with the Joneses and no qualms telling our kids that money doesn’t grow on proverbial trees. It has to be earned and spent based on needs, then priorities.

We’ve chosen not to pay more than $300 per kid each year so they can access the Internet from the palm of a hand. That’s money we’d prefer to spend on soccer dues, rather than enabling a 13-year-old to Instagram a funny picture.

Now I wonder if our frugal stance is putting our kids at a disadvantage in the classroom. That’s the worst place to be behind because of the long-term ramifications. For the most part, education still equals opportunity.

I didn’t fire off an angry email or make a chastising phone call because I know that hardworking teacher is constantly looking for creative ways to help her students learn on a shoestring budget. And, based on my conversation with my son, I know he wasn’t penalized for not having an Internet-accessible device.

I also see the educational value of using smartphones or other Internet-capable devices in the classroom. But asking students to supply those devices has me unsettled. Is that a fair request in a public-school setting? What about the families who struggle to even provide three healthy meals each day?

I thought public education in America aimed to teach all children and give them the same tools and opportunities to succeed, not just those with more means.

The first bullet point under the U.S. Department of Education’s mission is to “strengthen the Federal commitment to assuring access to equal educational opportunity for every individual.”

The third item under the Washington State Board of Education’s strategic plan is “closing opportunity gap.”

In my opinion, using student-supplied phones in class doesn’t support either mission. Instead, it helps widen the gap while adding another hurdle that less-advantaged children have to jump to get the same education.

This isn’t so simple as looking something up on the Internet.

Jill Barville is a longtime Spokane Valley freelance writer whose column appeared for many years in the Saturday Valley Voice. She writesthis space twice a month about families, life and everything else. She can be reached at jbarville@msn.com.
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