On a hot late August day, less than 24 hours before students were set to return to classrooms at Science Leadership Academy at Beeber in Philadelphia – the majority for the first time in 18 months – city council member Helen Gym joined educators, parents and students gathered in front of the school’s red doors and stately columns to protest the unsafe conditions inside, where an ongoing construction project had left asbestos exposed, layers of dust caking hallways and a shortage of working bathrooms for 700 students.
An emergency order notified parents and school staff earlier that day that, as a result of the facilities issues, high school students would begin the school year learning virtually and middle school students would be relocated to a vacant school nearby for the entirety of the academic year.
“Our children deal with lead, asbestos and mold,” Gym says of the School District of Philadelphia, where schools are on average 70 years old. “We had to start school weeks later than schools in the suburbs because we don’t have air conditioning and classrooms can reach 90 degrees or higher on our hottest days, which are becoming more and more frequent.”
Gym, a potential 2023 mayoral contender and longtime education activist, had been arrested weeks prior to the rally for banging on the doors of the Senate gallery inside the state Capitol in Harrisburg to protest the way the state funds the city’s public school system – a longstanding issue that goes on trial in the commonwealth court next week.
“We have windows that don’t open fully,” she says. “Even now we struggle with the basics of functioning cafeterias, bathrooms that don’t flood and roofs that don’t cave in.”
Five years ago, when Philadelphia performed a cursory assessment of its buildings, it estimated that basic repairs to bring schools up to code would cost roughly $4.5 billion, to say nothing of long-standing larger renovation needs or modernizing its K-12 system top-to-bottom. In 2019, the school district took out a $500 million bond for routine capital projects to begin facilities improvements.
Editorial Cartoons on Education
“It’s barely going to make a dent,” Gym says. “The reality is that transformational efforts will come from the federal government. It must ultimately come out of federal coffers because municipalities cannot do this lift on their own.”
So when President Joe Biden first unveiled $100 billion for school construction and modernization as part of his trillion-dollar infrastructure and family support package, dubbed “Build Back Better,” Gym and many other advocates who have been pleading for federal investment in school facilities for decades thought perhaps this was the moment when the infrastructure of the country’s K-12 system would finally be prioritized. After all, the federal government hasn’t made a significant investment in school facilities since the Great Depression – despite schools representing the second-largest infrastructure costs behind highways.
Yet between the Democrats’ razor-thin control of Congress and the months-long infighting among the party’s moderate and progressive wings over the total cost and pay-fors, the initial $100 billion proposal was whittled down – first to $82 billion when the House released its version of the legislation in September. Then, in a major blow that left educators, school leaders and advocates stunned, the funding was completely eliminated in the reconciliation language released last week, which Congress is now poised to approve and send to the president’s desk.
“School infrastructure is core to the Build Back Better mission and message,” Gym says. “If you want any one measure of the two Americas – that Black, brown and immigrant children live in and the rest of America – just walk into any public school.”
“We can’t wait. The urgency could not be greater.”
America’s K-12 Facilities Woes
The 2021 State of Our School report – the most recent analysis of the country’s public school facilities – found that the U.S. is underinvesting in school buildings and grounds by $85 billion each year, up an inflation-adjusted $25 billion a year since 2016.
And unlike highways, roads and bridges, which have most of their capital costs paid by federal and state sources, local school districts bear the heaviest responsibilities for school construction costs. Local districts paid 77% percent of the costs for capital projects from 2009 to 2019 – though the share is highly variable by state, with 11 states paying nothing and eight covering more than 50% of district costs.
The federal government contributes just 1%, or $7 billion, to school infrastructure costs, almost all of which goes toward rebuilding in the wake of natural disasters.
“It’s this glaring gap in what we are doing at a federal level,” says Rachel Hodgdon, president and CEO of the International WELL Building Institute. “Think about how many federal dollars we pour into roads and bridges and yet practically nothing into the places where we expect our children to be educated for a brighter future.”
Notably, the State of Our Schools report shows that low-poverty districts – those where less than 33% of students are economically disadvantaged – spent an average of $5.2 million per school for school construction from fiscal 2009 to 2018 compared to high-poverty districts – those where economically disadvantaged students account for more than 65% of students enrolled – averaged $3.8 million per school.
Overall, high-poverty districts had 37 percent less invested in their school facilities improvements than low-poverty districts.
“You have states and districts that can’t marshall these funds or even afford to take on the debt to make these improvements, and especially in the areas of highest needs – in rural school districts, in districts with high percentages of Black and brown students, in high-poverty districts,” Hodgdon says. “These are the districts that are suffering the most and completely ill-equipped to deal with these deficiencies on their own.”
More than 70% of Los Angeles Unified School District’s 1,400 schools were built more than 50 years ago and do not meet current standards for learning and safety, according to district officials. The high-poverty district, which has 100 schools that are nearly 100 years old, currently has more than $50 billion worth of unfunded school facilities and technology needs.
While cities like Philadelphia and Los Angeles have become poster children for school facilities woes, poor rural districts have the hardest time keeping up: Rural districts serving high-poverty communities have funded capital improvements at almost half the level of the national average – $2.3 million on average per school compared to $4.3 million per school.
“This is not the federal government’s responsibility to rebuild every dilapidated school in the nation, but it’s a problem that can only be solved through collaboration between local, state and federal government,” says Keith Perrigan, superintendent of Bristol County schools in Virginia, a small rural community nestled in the southwest corner of the state along the Tennessee border where close to 70% of students are from low-income families.
“High-poverty divisions, high-poverty localities dont have the tax base they need to raise the revenue locally to address these issues, so without state and federal assistance, students in high-poverty areas are going to continue to attend substandard school facilities.”
Out of 132 school districts in Virginia, Bristol is second to last when it comes to the average age of its schools – the oldest was built in 1916 and the newest, or as Perrigan calls it, “our baby,” was built in 1974. The district has been trying to raise funds to build a new elementary school for the last five years. With a total operating budget of $30 million, it needs an additional $500,000 annually to begin breaking ground on the new school.
“We are counting every penny that comes in just to make ends meet as it is,” he says about the shovel-ready project, for which materials increased in cost by $4 million over the last 18 months. “We were really hoping that with some federal assistance that would be the nudge that pushed us over the edge to afford it.”
Advocates: School Infrastructure Intimately Tied to Biden Agenda
Advocates say they’re particularly perplexed as to why the funding was eliminated from the package when it’s so intimately tied to the Biden administration’s agenda – and not just as part of a transformational investment in the country’s infrastructure that’s set to create millions of new jobs but also central to his focus on equity, climate change and increasing access to early education.
“In an education era when so much talk is being done about equity, this is truly, for rural school divisions and a lot of high-poverty school divisions, the biggest equity concern we have,” Perrigan says. “Students who attend schools that were built in the 1930s have to compete when they go to college and into the workforce against students from affluent school divisions who are attending school and learning in a 21st century learning environment.”
“To neglect this very important infrastructure issue continues to leave those students who need education the most behind. And so my message to Congress or the president would be simply this: There is still time to make a change.”
Beyond updating facilities and driving equity, advocates say the infrastructure funding would have allowed schools to modernize computer labs or added career and technical education facilities to address immediate workforce needs, as well as helped schools prepare additional space for the anticipated increase in access to child care and pre-kindergarten.
The package Congress is poised to pass includes $400 billion for child care for low- and middle-income families and universal pre-kindergarten. As it stands, just 44% of 4-year-olds and 17% of 3-year-olds are enrolled in pre-K programs, and the forthcoming investment is set to add close to 2 million additional seats.
“This is really an incredible loss,” Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, says of the elimination of the school infrastructure funding. “And it’s not just a loss in construction itself. It’s a loss in the way that facilities knit together so many elements of what they’re trying to do in Build Back Better.”
“It’s an incredible lack of appreciation for what a lever school facilities are on equity, what a lever it is on climate, what a lever it will be on child care and universal pre-K,” she says.
To be sure, the federal government has never played a major role in school infrastructure funding – largely because education has always been the responsibility of local and state governments.
“I think there is a sense from Republican lawmakers that if you open the door for school facilities funding that it will be a never ending hole that we will be pouring funds into,” Hodgdon says. “Well, they are not entirely wrong. There’s an $85-billion-a-year deficit. So it is a massive need.”
Yet polls showed that more than 60% of Americans supported the infrastructure and families package when funding for school infrastructure was included.
There’s also an overwhelming sense that members of Congress – especially Republicans – winced at the idea of spending any more money on the country’s public school system, especially after coronavirus relief packages sent K-12 schools more than $200 billion over the last year.
And while some of that funding can be used to overhaul facilities, districts have mostly focused on upgrades to heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems as well as fixes to doors, windows and other ventilation-specific improvements. But the vast majority of the aid is not being used for these types of fixes, early data shows, both because of more immediate needs related to the pandemic and also because the deadlines imposed on school districts for spending the relief dollars.
The other major problem advocates see is a lack of good data to show lawmakers that a major crisis does, in fact, exist. The “State of Our School Report,” which is published every few years, is the most comprehensive overview of school infrastructure that exists.
“Part of the problem is that nobody wants to open the door to show people really what the problems are,” Filardo says. “Who wants to go out there and say, ‘See how unhealthy and unsafe my school buildings are?’ But you don’t get funding for your buildings unless you can justify needing it.”
Hodgdon agrees: “It’s really easy to ignore a problem you can’t see,” she says.
But the COVID-19 pandemic shined a spotlight on school facilities in a way that hadn’t been highlighted in decades. A 2020 report the Government Accountability Office released just at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic found that 41% of districts required HVAC system upgrades or replacements in at least half of their schools, and that 20% to 35% of all school districts had serious deficiencies in at least half of their roofing, lighting or safety and security systems.
Now, as the country asks schools to do more for students and their families than they ever have – becoming centers for food distribution, COVID-19 testing and vaccination, child care and more – advocates wonder how lawmakers could have overlooked such a crucial line item.
“Somebody has to raise their hand and take responsibility for the second largest category of infrastructure in the United States,” Hodgdon says. “The federal government cannot continue to turn its back on what really has become a national crisis.”