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Lightfoot unveils $50 million program to provide free high-speed internet to CPS students

Last month, the mayor had demanded that Chicago internet providers stop “putting profits over people” and bridge the digital divide that has made remote learning difficult at CPS.

CPS has made the switch to remote learning by distributing more than 100,000 laptop computers and tablets; the devices come either from its own stockpile or are donated by individuals and corporations.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Roughly 100,000 Chicago Public Schools students will get free access to high-speed internet service over the next four years, thanks to a $50 million program bankrolled in part by Illinois’ richest man.

Last month, Mayor Lori Lightfoot demanded Chicago internet providers stop “putting profits over people” and bridge the digital divide that has made remote learning difficult at CPS.

Now, she’s turning to hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin and some of Chicago’s most powerful philanthropies to solve a vexing, persistent problem in the city’s most impoverished South and West Side neighborhoods.

“Internet access is more than just an accessory. It’s one of the most powerful equalizers that we have,” the mayor said at Evergreen Academy Middle School on the South Side, announcing the “groundbreaking” new initiative she called one of the biggest of its kind in the country.

Mayor Lightfoot announces that roughly 100,000 CPS students will get free access to high-speed internet service over the next four years.
Mayor Lightfoot announces that roughly 100,000 CPS students will get free access to high-speed internet service over the next four years.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

“The COVID-19 crisis has impacted our city in many ways, including revealing unacceptable disparities across our city, from healthcare to jobs, education, food and web access — inequities that have existed for generations,” Lightfoot said. “This effort makes the difference between having an education and not. And really more than that, it’s about empowering families. It’s saying to them that you matter.”

After apparently not getting enough concessions from internet providers, Lightfoot turned to Griffin — again.

He agreed to contribute $7.5 million to help bankroll the first half of a four-year program known as “Chicago Connected.”

Other major donors include: Crown Family Philanthropies ($5 million); Chicago Community COVID Response Fund administered by the Chicago Community Trust and United Way of Metro Chicago ($2.5 million); Illinois Tool Works ($2 million) and the Pritzker Traubert Foundation ($1.5 million); the JPB Foundation ($500,000) and the Joyce Foundation ($250,000).

Another $750,000 commitment was made by former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle; the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; and the Chicago Community Trust to the Children’s First Fund, the philanthropic arm of CPS. That money will used to support South Side community organizations.

City Hall will round out the first two years of funding by contributing $5 million in federal stimulus funds. Years 3 and 4 will be paid for by CPS.

The former president tweeted his support Thursday afternoon: “Michelle and I want every kid in Chicago to grow up knowing even better opportunities than we had. We’re happy to help Chicago Connected reach every kid in the city. This is where I found a purpose and a family — and it’ll always be our home.”

Schools chief Janice Jackson called the effort a “game-changer” for the thousands of families who haven’t been able to get online for remote learning.

“This investment will ensure that if we need to return to remote learning at any point during the next school year, that ... thousands of our students will have access,” she said. “But I would even go a step further and say this is essential whether we’re in a remote learning environment or not. We now know, as we should’ve known prior to this, that having a device and access to broadband is as essential as we thought having textbooks were in the 1980s.”

Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson speaks during a press conference announcing a free high-speed internet initiative for 100,000 students.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

In switching to remote learning, CPS distributed more than 100,000 laptop computers and tablets; the devices came either from its own stockpile, ones the district recently purchased or others that have been donated by individuals and corporations.

But it’s been a difficult transition. The mayor’s office cited census data showing roughly 100,000 Chicago students coming from low-income families still lack reliable high-speed internet access.

Their households will get just that for four years; students’ eligibility will depend on whether they are covered by one or more “priority indicators”: eligible for free lunch; having special needs; experiencing homelessness; or living in communities with the highest hardship. Students enrolled in summer school will also get priority.

The goal is to reach as many of the 100,000 students as possible before the new school year starts. Lightfoot has said she hopes to open school on time this fall with in-classroom learning, a goal Gov. J.B. Pritzker endorsed this week.

But if there’s another surge in coronavirus cases before then, remote learning — or a blend of in-classroom and remote learning — will need to continue. That’d make the $50 million program all the more important.

“While we remain fully committed to making every possible effort to getting students back in the classroom this fall, we also need to be realistic,” Lightfoot said Thursday. “We don’t have a crystal ball. We can’t predict what the public health metrics will tell us. But I can tell you this: We will be prepared for whatever the fates have in store for us.

“That’s why ‘Chicago Connected’ is especially critical now, because we need to be prepared in the event that any aspect of remote learning is necessary in the fall and beyond.”

Last year, Griffin made a $2 million donation to mayoral challenger Bill Daley that may have cost Daley a spot in the April 2 run-off by linking Daley to Griffin, who had been a top donor of former Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Movers and shakers fearful that Chicago could take a sharp turn to the political left and increase business taxes joined Griffin in filling Daley’s campaign coffers.

But the hedge fund billionaire has more recently turned into Lightfoot’s go-to guy.

His donations helped CPS distribute food during the pandemic and continue to bankroll strategic deployment centers for the Chicago Police Department. Just a few weeks ago, another $4 million Griffin donation helped repair damage to Chicago’s lakefront.

On Thursday, Griffin called internet connectivity a “lifeline to education and opportunity” that extends learning “beyond the classroom.

“With ongoing access, every student and their family — regardless of economic circumstance — will be better positioned to pursue a brighter future,” Griffin, founder and CEO of Citadel, was quoted as saying in a press release.

“I hope ‘Chicago Connected’ will inspire other communities across the country to come together to eliminate the digital divide.”