A modest federal role in public school infrastructure that builds state and local capacity to address unhealthy, unsafe, inadequate and inequitable public school facilities in the lowest wealth and highest need districts.
By Mary Filardo
Our nation’s 100,000 schools are the second largest U.S. infrastructure investment, after roads and bridges. Every weekday, 56 million children and adults — 1 in 6 of all Americans — set foot in a public school. They provide our nation’s children with a learning environment essential to their achievement and to the productivity of working parents and guardians serving as anchors in our communities.
Public School Funding Breakdown
States and school districts together spent about $1 trillion (2014$) on school construction capital outlay from fiscal year 1994 through 2013. The federal support for school facilities was less than one percent of this amount — mostly from FEMA to rebuild public schools destroyed by natural disasters. States provided widely varying levels of funding. Twelve states contributed no capital funding for local school district facilities, but on average, states contributed eighteen percent of school construction capital outlay from FY1994-2013.
The local school districts carried the lion’s share for school construction capital outlay and contributed an average of 82% of the costs for school modernization, renovation, major systems and component renewals and new construction. This compares to the annual operating expenditures of school districts for FY14, where 9% of funds are from federal sources, 46% are from state sources, and 45% are from local sources.
There are over 15,000 school districts responsible for public education across the country and they jealously guard local control of their public schools. However, this organization of public education finance for capital outlay leaves children from low-wealth school districts and inactive states without the ability to provide modern public school facilities.
Evolving School Needs
The inequities in ability to pay are extreme, even as school districts are faced with nearly identical facilities challenges.
- Public school facilities average about 50 years old, and their roofs, boilers, air handling units, windows, doors, plumbing and electrical systems, finishes, furniture, fixtures and equipment have exceeded their expected lives and need to be upgraded or replaced.
- Construction codes have changed over the life of these buildings, and school districts must make design and construction changes to address these new standards for climate change, accessibility, health and life-safety.
- Education delivery and curriculum has changed, and career technical education, early childhood, special education, and educational technology often require reimagining school facilities altogether or making design and construction alterations to existing facilities in support of teaching and learning.
- School-age populations and demographics always change, and the needs for shared use of public school facilities for day care, elder care, and other programs and services during the school day, after school and throughout the calendar year are increasing.
This environment has left school districts about $38 billion short each year to maintain existing school facilities in good repair and to make the alterations necessary to support the instruction, programs, services and community uses required for 21st century learning communities.
Status of Education Infrastructure Funding in Congress
For years, Capitol Hill staff have described the passage of infrastructure legislation as a “white buffalo.” Today, despite a divided Congress, there is favorable movement. There is a rare legislative window and the first real opportunity to include public school facilities in national infrastructure policy. On February 25, President Trump urged Congress to take up infrastructure legislation, which would fulfill one of his campaign pledges. At a luncheon with Republican and Democratic governors in March, Vice President Mike Pence went so far as to promise that the current Congress will “pass historic infrastructure legislation.”
Having reclaimed the chamber, House Democrats have taken the lead on infrastructure. The House Transportation & Infrastructure and House Education & Labor Committees have already held hearings on green infrastructure and on school facility funding. House Education & Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) introduced the Rebuild America’s Schools Act, HR 865 and SB 266 now co-sponsored by 179 House Democrats and 25 Senate Democrats. On February 26, the House Ed & Labor Committee successfully marked up the bill and sent it to the House floor.
The House and Senate bills are identical and include: $70 billion of direct funding as block grants to states over 10 years to be distributed, by states, based on low-wealth and high-need facilities and students; and $30 billion for bond financing tax credits over two years, also distributed according to needs-based criteria. Other important elements of this legislation are the ability to use $1 billion to build state capacity for data, planning, technical assistance, and guidance on standards; and national research and reporting.
In their broader infrastructure proposal last year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer set the baseline for public school facilities funding at $40 billion for K-12 and $10 billion for community college facilities. The position of the Democratic leadership is important because it must be fully prepared to produce and continue to advocate for an infrastructure plan that includes public school buildings.
However, the 116th congressional legislative window for action is short. Congressman Richard Neal (D-MA), Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, is discussing with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin how to finance a package, and Neal believes that Congress has until the end of August to act. In a recent meeting with the staff of House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC), the Deputy Policy Director suggested that the House may take up a comprehensive infrastructure package in May.
Advancing a Bi-Partisan Advocacy Strategy
The Democrats are committed to federal infrastructure funding and to schools in the infrastructure package. The House is likely to pass the Rebuild America’s School Act. However, there is no bi-partisanship on this legislation. Even though in a recent poll of Americans — Republican and Democrat —66 percent said they supported federal spending on school buildings.
In January 2018, the 21st Century School Fund, National Council on School Facilities, the Center for Cities + Schools @ UCB and the Center for Green Schools @ USGBC formed the [Re]Build America’s Schools Coalition (BASIC), a non-partisan coalition to advocate for federal funding for public school infrastructure as part of a national infrastructure package.
BASIC, with strongest representation from state facilities directors from the National Council on School Facilities, has met with House and Senate members and staff in 2017 and 2018 to educate them about the conditions of school facilities in their states. To date, we have met with most Republican Senators or their staff. We have learned that:
- School facilities has not been on their radar screen and they know little if anything about the issue. Simply getting them up to speed on the scale of the problem back home and how federal funding can help has been a basic first step.
- We have been surprised by their openness to including school facilities in any comprehensive package. Only a few Senate offices have come back to us with the traditional Republican, hands-off, “local control” response. Their perspective is affected by the conditions on the ground in their state.
- Most are taking a wait-and-see attitude in terms of what the White House will support and what is finally in the legislative package.
The BASIC coalition represents the only cross sector effort to secure schools in the infrastructure package.
1) Join BASIC.
2) Contact and visit your legislators when they are home — Spring recess is April 13 -28th.
3) Write an opinion editorial for your local paper on the importance of federal funding for crumbling schools districts.
MARY FILARDO is a leading national authority and advocate for improving the equity, efficiency and quality of public school facilities. She founded the 21st Century School Fund in 1994 to improve the crumbling public school facilities in the District of Columbia. She has researched and written extensively on public school facility policy and spending, as well as worked with communities and officials to engage them in effective long-range facilities master planning.