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Minnesota’s Digital Divide: How Minnesota Can Replicate the Rural Electrification Act to Deliver Rural Broadband

By Abby Oakland. Full Text.

For disadvantaged communities, education can be the silver bullet. It can equip and empower students to rise above their economic station. It can level the playing field. It can provide opportunity absent in their current circumstances. It can open doors that would otherwise remain closed. Recognizing this power, Minnesota’s Constitution places a duty on the legislature to “establish a general and uniform system of public schools.” While judicial elaboration of this passage’s full meaning remains sparse, it generally requires that every student receive an education that meets a baseline standard of adequacy.

Despite this constitutional guarantee, Minnesota’s rural students are falling behind. In an increasingly technology-driven world, academic and professional success requires a new and different skillset than in the past. To navigate modern curriculum and prepare for future employment settings, students must learn and develop sophisticated technology skills. At the foundation of this new skillset lies broadband Internet. The ability to navigate and harness the diverse tools available using broadband now represents a baseline expectation of competency. But rural areas often lack even basic Internet access. While urban students experiment with advanced technology tasks such as coding and 3D modeling, rural students often wait as websites endlessly buffer and video calls fail.

This Note argues that the inability to access broadband Internet prevents rural students from receiving an adequate education and violates Minnesota’s Constitution. In response, this Note argues that Minnesota’s legislature must act to rectify the disparity among rural and urban schools. Finally, it uses the New Deal-era Rural Electrification Act as a blueprint for the type of large-scale infrastructure project that would be required. Mimicking the Rural Electrification Act’s use of low-interest loans that incentivize the creation of local cooperatives represents a feasible and sustainable approach to delivering state-wide broadband. By leveraging rural communities to build broadband infrastructure and maintain the service long-term, Minnesota’s Legislature can meets its constitutional duty to ensure each Minnesota students receives an adequate education.