Public school buildings are falling apart, and students are suffering for it

Originally published in The Washington Post on January 8, 2018 (!)

Baltimore students made national headlines last week, with news of children across the city stuck in freezing classrooms, quivering in hats, gloves and winter coats. Four Baltimore schools never opened due to broken heaters, and several others sent students home early.

While schools all over the East Coast later shut down for the “bomb cyclone” that brought snow, hail and devastating wind, Baltimore’s situation was notable in part because the weather that day wasn’t actually that inclement. It was cold, but nothing that extraordinary for January in Maryland. Inside the school buildings though, boiler systems failed, and some classrooms never warmed beyond 40 degrees. A graduate of Baltimore public schools has since launched a GoFundMe, raising more than $75,000 for space heaters and outerwear.

Problems associated with inadequate school buildings are not exclusive to high-poverty cities. There were also reports this week that schools in Montgomery County, Md. — one of the most affluent areas in the country — had malfunctioning boilers, with students confined to chilly classrooms. U.S. school buildings are 45 years old on average. But these problems disproportionately impact poor communities. In older cities, particularly industrial ones, schools average closer to 60-70 years old. Nearly half of Baltimore’s schools were built in the 1960s or earlier, and just since 3 percent were built since 1985.

School facility issues generally receive less attention from education policy experts, despite direct links between the condition of schools and a school’s ability to educate. Research has shown how factors like poor temperature control, indoor air quality and lighting can negatively affect student learning. Other research has suggested that improving school facilities could boost teacher retention as much as, if not greater than, raising teacher salaries.

We’ve known about the school infrastructure crisis for a long time. More than two decades ago, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that as many as 28 million students attended schools with significant structural problems, including 15,000 schools with unsafe indoor air quality. By 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave public schools a “D+” grade on its national report card. One 2016 report estimated it would cost roughly $145 billion annually to maintain and modernize school buildings so all students could learn in safe environments.

Yet when it comes to our national infrastructure debate, railroads, bridges and highways generally get more attention — and command a more formidable lobbying presence in Washington. Groups like the National Council on School Facilities have been trying to organize support for this issue. But the task is too great to fall on them alone.

Two years after the GAO report, President Bill Clinton declared, “We cannot expect our children to raise themselves up in schools that are literally falling down.” He went on to say that with student population at an all-time high, and record numbers of schools falling into disrepair, “this has now become a serious national concern.”

Except the feds then didn’t do much of anything, and the burden has fallen on the backs of local communities, which currently pay more than 80 percent of school capital costs. States cover only 19 percent of the capital spending on average, and in 2015, 12 states provided no school capital funding at all.

Low-wealth jurisdictions like Baltimore, Philadelphia and Detroit face far greater challenges borrowing money and accessing capital investment, making it even harder to address needed repairs. And when repairs are deferred, the costs increase. As a result, students in affluent communities can enjoy higher-quality school buildings than those in lower-income districts.

And even with signs that the economy is on the upswing, one shouldn’t suspect that equitable investments in schools will simply trickle down to the neediest areas. The economy grew quickly in the decade following the GAO report, but even then the nation’s most disadvantaged students received about half the funding for their school buildings than students in affluent areas. The 21st Century School Fund, a national nonprofit that advocates for improved school buildings, found that poorer schools were more likely to use their limited funds for basic repairs like new roofs or asbestos removal. Wealthier schools, by contrast, could invest their capital dollars in upgrades like new science labs and performing arts centers.

The last time Congress debated school infrastructure spending was in 2009, as part of President Barack Obama’s stimulus deal. But Sen. Susan Collins (Me.) — one of three Republicans needed by Democrats to vote for the bill’s passage — argued that school facilities are a local responsibility, and the feds shouldn’t be involved. Billions of dollars in school funding were scrapped from the bill as a result. Even today some moderate Democrats, including Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.), voice skepticism about the feds’ role in funding school buildings.

But increasing federal aid for struggling school districts does not mean Congress will then take over textbooks, teachers and curriculum. Education will remain a local issue, just as it did following the Great Depression, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt distributed more than $1 billion for school building and repair.

The feds can help schools meet the fast-growing costs of construction and maintenance, while also providing needed boosts to areas that lack wealthy tax bases. Mary Filardo, the director of the 21st Century School Fund, suggests school districts should also be able to leverage up to 10 percent of their Title I funds for capital expenses — currently, the federal money distributed to high-poverty districts can only go toward operating costs.

Schools are more than just educational institutions. They also serve as pillars for communities — strengthening civic life, attracting families and jobs. We can’t depend on GoFundMe campaigns to keep our water fountains lead-free, our schools cool in the summer, our roofs sturdy and our windows intact. We need to take this problem seriously, and advocate strong and safe schools for all.


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