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Infrastructure plan could point to sea change for schools

Federal role in public school construction opposed by conservatives

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi introduced the Democrats’ infrastructure plan on Jan. 30. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi introduced the Democrats’ infrastructure plan on Jan. 30. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

The nation’s roads and bridges may be falling down, but its schools aren’t far behind.

So education proponents paid attention last week when, unveiling a $760 billion legislative infrastructure framework, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested that any infrastructure package would ultimately include federal dollars for school construction.

“We tell children that education is important, they should study, it’s important to their own self‑fulfillment and to that of our country, and yet we send some of them to schools that are so substandard that it sends a different message,” Pelosi said the day after rolling out the infrastructure plan.

A bigger federal role in school construction would amount to a sea change for public education in the U.S., where state and local governments have traditionally paid for building and renovation. While the federal government has demanded school districts educate all children equally, it hasn’t demanded that the school buildings themselves be equal.

[Trump scales down once-grand infrastructure ambitions]

High-profile incidents in Baltimore, where schools lacked heat, and in Philadelphia, where schools were contaminated with asbestos, have drawn attention to the state of those buildings. In its latest report card on infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave schools a D-plus. 

Democrats may be looking to change that.

Grants included

Pelosi has signaled her willingness to include in the infrastructure plan a bill that would create a $70 billion grant program and a $30 billion tax credit bond program for high-poverty schools.

That bill, introduced by House Education and Labor Chairman Robert C. Scott, D-Va., won his committee’s approval last February. A Scott aide said the office’s “understanding remains that the Rebuild America’s Schools Act … will be incorporated into the final infrastructure package before it heads to the floor.”

Both bills, however, face grim prospects in the GOP-led Senate and are believed to be part of the Democrats’ strategy to show their priorities during an election year. Still, Pelosi insists, “these are not message bills.” 

While local property taxes have largely paid for school construction nationwide, there is some precedent for using federal dollars to pay for such projects, said Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund. Most of the nation’s schools are more than 50 years old, she noted.

During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration financed 4,383 new schools and renovated thousands of others between 1935 and 1940. 

President Bill Clinton signed a bill authorizing $1.2 billion in emergency school repairs in 2001. And the 2009 infrastructure and stimulus package signed by President Barack Obama authorized a $54 billion State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, requiring states to spend at least 81.8 percent on schools, including for construction and renovation. 

Those federal dollars, Filardo said, “didn’t destroy local control, or constitute a federal takeover of school capital programs — and no doubt did real good where they were spent.” 

Still, the federal government has resisted playing a consistent role, an anathema to conservatives worried about the reach of federal authority. Overall, she said, “they have not wanted to get involved in it, and they have not gotten involved in it.”

Acute needs

Susan Hann, assistant superintendent for facility services at Brevard Public Schools in Florida, said school authorities there aren’t just dealing with mold and aging HVAC systems. 

In her state, the demand for security has become acute in the aftermath of the Parkland shootings, creating an additional facilities need that could be helped by federal dollars.

Florida’s heat is also a problem. Many of the school buildings in the state were built before air conditioning. School districts, turning off the A/C during the weekends to save money, would come back Monday morning to see mold covering chairs and tables. In the summer, tiles pop because of the humidity. “If you don’t have basic air conditioning in Florida, a lot of stuff gets ruined,” Hann said.

She said while schools desperately need dollars for infrastructure, “it’d be a different paradigm for us all to try to work through” federal contracting requirements.

“It would be a seismic change,” she said. But “we’d make it work. We make state legislative mandates work all the time.”

Jerry Roseman, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ director of environmental health and safety, said the current funding model gives an advantage to schools in wealthier areas. 

But “federal funding is compromised … by the notion that schools are not federally controlled” and are instead the bailiwick of states and localities.

In his city, asbestos has forced the closure of six schools since the beginning of the school year. One teacher has been diagnosed with mesothelioma. 

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Cascade of problems

In the absence of dollars, school districts often defer maintenance, which ultimately leads to a cascade of problems. Some districts, including Philadelphia, have been sued by taxpayers hoping to force building improvements.

But the idea that school construction should be the responsibility of the federal government is a tough concept to accept for David Ditch, a research associate at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

He said schools are historically local projects and should continue to be. Who better than parents in a school district, he asks, to determine the needs of that district?

At the local level, he said, “you have much more ability for your concerns to be heard, and local-level officials have much more ability to see a problem and take action.”

Ditch said taxpayers in one state shouldn’t be obligated to spend their dollars on schools in another state.

“We currently have a $23 trillion deficit,” he said. “Do we need to be micromanaging the expectation of how nice every school is in every rural area and every urban area? Should taxpayers in Nevada be paying for asbestos removal in Philadelphia?”

Absolutely, said Filardo. 

Sending a child to a physically substandard school tells students that “I’m not valuable and that this activity isn’t valuable,” she said. 

“A building is not by itself going to carry a child into college,” she said. “But what we know is school buildings in very poor condition are actual barriers to getting a good education.”

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