Will Crumbling School Buildings Get a Piece of the Infrastructure Pie?

(Photo: AP/Kathy Willens)

A photo of Charles E. Gorton High School in Yonkers, New York, in July 2012, when the school district was seeking $1.7 billion from investors to overhaul its schools.

Paul L. Dunbar Elementary school, a historic, four-story building of orange brick located in North Philadelphia, looks solid and imposing from the outside. But inside Dunbar, water leaks from the school’s aging roof into classrooms, the windows are in need of repair, and the heating system only works some of the time.

Dunbar is one of hundreds of schools in Philadelphia and throughout the country that is literally falling apart. From fire code violations to faulty boilers that make it too hot or too cold for students to concentrate in class, structural problems plague as many as two-thirds of America’s schools. By one 2016 estimate, it would cost $145 billion a year to properly repair and maintain the nation’s school buildings.

So when President Donald Trump flagged school infrastructure investments in his first speech following the presidential election, public school advocates sat up and took notice. “We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals,” Trump declared. “We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none.”

But excitement turned to uncertainty a few weeks later when Trump gave his inaugural address. The president talked again about infrastructure spending, but this time made no mention of school facilities. In fact, Trump actually argued that America’s education system—as opposed to being starved for investments—is “flush with cash.”

It’s been like that a lot for public school advocates toiling to drag the nation’s crumbling school buildings into the 21st century. A full two decades ago, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that as many as 28 million students attend schools under conditions that are unhealthy, uncomfortable, or even unsafe. Yet virtually no federal funding has been set aside to address these infrastructure problems. That burden falls on the shoulders of local districts. And since some localities possess far more power to raise money for repairs than others, the condition of schools in wealthy versus low-income districts varies wildly.

The last time the nation debated school infrastructure spending in 2009, billions of dollars were set aside to renovate school buildings in disrepair. The school infrastructure money had been proposed as part of President Obama’s economic stimulus bill following the 2008 financial crisis. Advocates of that bill, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, needed to secure the vote of Maine Senator Susan Collins, one of three Republicans who held the key to its passage. But Collins argued that education facility spending should be a local, not a federal matter, so the school repair money was stripped out at the last minute.

“Her reasoning was that the federal government shouldn’t be involved in public schools, that it was a local issue,” recalls Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the former chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden from 2009 to 2011. “We tried to explain that this is just a one-time jolt of infrastructure money to help them improve their facilities, maintenance, and energy efficiency. This was about the quality of the buildings kids would be walking into, not the federal government coming to take over your curriculum.”

School repair advocates tried again in 2011, when Democrats Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut introduced the Fix America’s Schools Today Act, which would have authorized $25 billion in federal school improvement funds. The legislation would have distributed 40 percent of the money to the 100 largest high-need school districts, and the remaining 60 percent would have been split among state education departments and administered through competitive grants. But the bill, too, went nowhere, and it was never reintroduced.

Now, Trump’s plans for sweeping infrastructure investments give public education advocates what some say is their best chance in decades to finally repair the nation’s dilapidated schools. Senate Democrats, for starters, recently unveiled an infrastructure bill that included $75 billion for school investments. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, praised the Democrats’ proposal, adding that her union has “walk[ed] the walk” on infrastructure investment for years, harnessing billions in teacher pension money to pay for projects. But the size and shape of the GOP plan is unclear, and it’s anyone’s guess whether Republicans will include in their legislation the repair money that school facility advocates seek.

Convincing Congress to spend big on school infrastructure could be an uphill battle. Unlike the highway and railway lobbies, school infrastructure advocates don’t have a well-funded institutional presence on K Street. Moreover, advocates also lost a key political champion when Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, retired in 2015. Harkin had chaired the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee in 2009, and had been one of Capitol Hill’s strongest champions for school infrastructure funding.

Still, advocates of school buildings are gearing up to make their case. One promising new weapon in their arsenal is the National Council of School Facilities, a nonprofit organization formed in 2012 to support state agency officials responsible for public school facilities. Late last year, the group issued a resolution calling for pre-K–12 public school buildings and grounds to be included in federal infrastructure programs. Though the group has a tiny budget, it is the first federal lobbying vehicle for state leaders to advocate on behalf of school repairs.

Proponents of increased school infrastructure spending have their work cut out for them, says Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, a national nonprofit that advocates for improved public school facilities. Our “feet are still a little flat,” she admits. “States are not prepared to make as strong a case as they need to about the importance of school buildings, and their role in economic change.”

Federal school infrastructure investments are important, Filardo and her allies say, because aside from creating jobs and directly providing resources for school repair, the feds can also help motivate states that are currently contributing nothing to building repairs in local districts to step up and help out.

Currently, local communities pay more than 80 percent of capital costs for school buildings. Over the past two decades, by contrast, states covered only 19 percent of school facility capital spending on average, according to the 21st Century School Fund. And in 2015, 12 states provided no school repair funding at all.

Even more importantly, school repair advocates see federal investments as the only real means to eradicate the gaping disparities between school buildings in wealthy versus low-income communities across the nation. “When facilities are just funded locally, how much you can spend is entirely a function of the wealth of your community,” says Filardo.

The school infrastructure crisis has been building for decades. In 1995, the GAO issued a report estimating that $112 billion was needed to repair and modernize the nation’s school facilities. By 2013, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave public school facilities a “D+” grade on its national report card. The group found that school construction had diminished to approximately half the level spent before the recession, even as public school enrollment continued to grow.

And last year, yet another report, issued by the 21st Century School Fund, the National Council on School Facilities, and the Center for Green Schools, estimated that it would cost roughly $145 billion a year to maintain, operate, and modernize school facilities to the point where all American students could learn in safe and healthy environments.

If there’s one lesson school facility advocates say they’ve learned from the past few decades, it’s that money doesn’t just trickle down to the schools and districts that need it most.

“From 1995 to 2004, there was tremendous growth in the U.S. economy, and I wondered whether because of this, low-wealth zip codes would get plenty of school construction money,” says Filardo. “What we found is that there was no trickle down—the poor districts were starved compared to the wealthiest districts, except where there had been court cases, and even then it still didn’t compensate for the differences in where they started out.”

In the decade following the GAO’s seminal 1995 report, the nation’s most disadvantaged students received about half the funding for their school buildings ($4,800 per student) as their more affluent peers ($9,361 per student), according to a study led by Filardo’s group. The 21st Century School Fund found that poor schools were most likely to use their limited funds for basic repairs, like asbestos removal or new roofs, while schools in more affluent communities tended to use repair money for things like constructing new science labs and performing arts centers.

These findings underscore why throwing money at schools is, by itself, not enough, say public school advocates; infrastructure investment must be consciously directed to districts with the greatest needs. Otherwise, any school repair money allocated in a Trump administration infrastructure package could just deepen the colossal disadvantages students in poor communities already face.

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