Recently, the House Education and Labor Committee in Congress passed a landmark school modernization initiative for the nation’s public schools. It appropriates $82 billion over the next several years to upgrade and build new schools to ensure they are safe, more energy efficient, and promote more equitable learning environments across the nation. The committee action is part of a larger $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, based on President Biden’s Build Back Better initiative to address climate change, and to fund health care, child care, family leave, and public education expansion.
Legislative action to rebuild the nation’s public school infrastructure takes place after some two decades of work by advocates and researchers, and by mostly Democratic presidents and members of Congress to carefully document the poor condition of the nation’s classrooms.
The effort goes back to 2000, when President Clinton proposed over $30 billion in spending to rebuild schools through bonds and grants; this initiative failed to get enough support in Congress. In 2011, President Obama proposed making a $25 billion investment in school infrastructure to modernize some 35,000 public schools, which also failed to get support in Congress. This year, President Biden has proposed a $100 billion plan in direct aid and bonding support for building new schools and rebuilding old ones.
In recent years, the case for decisive federal action on school modernization has only become stronger. Crumbling and overcrowded schools, new technology demands, continued funding disparities affecting poor school districts and communities of color, new concern about the importance of safe and well-ventilated classrooms in the COVID-19 era, and the accelerating effect of climate and energy demand require significant new investments.
A landmark study in 2016 by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that state and local governments underfund public school facilities by $46 billion annually, proof that deferred maintenance of school facilities is creating risk and costs for students and staff. The GAO also found that over half of school districts in the nation need major system upgrades, with over 36,000 schools needing heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) updates or replacement. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure found that lack of school facility investment has left schools overcrowded, with more than one-third using portable buildings, many of which are in poor or fair condition. Today, the average public school building in the nation is now almost fifty years old.
Historic school funding disparities based on district residents’ race and income manifest themselves in school facilities. One study showed public school facility spending in school districts with low-income students is half of what it is for districts with students from high income families. A nationwide school funding study by The Century Foundation found that school districts with high concentrations of Black and Latinx students were much more likely to be underfunded, and to be underfunded by larger amounts.
The COVID-19 pandemic has compelled school districts to take additional action to ensure air quality for staff and students, including upgrades to ventilation and filtration systems. This remedial action to address HVAC concerns and related investments during the pandemic has consumed resources and placed financial pressure on many already underfunded school districts.
Remote learning prompted by COVID-19 has also underscored the crushing disparities regarding Internet access at home. According to one study, 40 percent of low-income public school students do not have reliable Internet service at home. While household Internet access is not traditionally a public school facilities issue, such aid should be included to help students get more reliable Internet service (such as through mobile hotspots) and improved device access at home.
Worsening climate change has also added an urgency to making our schools more energy efficient. The Century Foundation noted last year that public school modernization presents a huge opportunity to reduce the nation’s energy consumption through upgrading the sector’s energy efficiency and consumption. Annual energy costs for schools are currently estimated at $8 billion, making that the second highest expenditure schools make behind only salaries. Public schools are among the largest consumers of energy in the public sector.
Despite the overwhelming need, the federal government has no major funding program to rebuild our nation’s schools. By contrast, the federal government invests almost $50 billion annually to subsidize state and local highways, and that funding is expected to increase dramatically with the bipartisan infrastructure bill pending in Congress.
Federal investments in roads and bridges are essential for strengthening our economy, and long overdue. But so are powerful new federal investments to ensure every student—regardless of region, race, or family income—can learn in safe and functional classrooms that are energy efficient and future ready.
As negotiations continue on the Build Back Better bill, Congress should ensure it includes robust investments in modernizing school facilities.