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Published in Print: April 5, 2000, as Momentum Building For Construction Funding

Momentum Building For Construction Funding

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The scenes from the school are shocking, but are familiar to many educators across the country: broken windows, mildewed ceiling tiles with gaping holes, and rotting wooden bookshelves.

They appear in a video produced by the Organizations Concerned About Rural Education, a Washington-based coalition of groups—just one of many reports, pictures, and firsthand stories that have been circulated on Capitol Hill to remind lawmakers of the school construction problems that many districts face. For the past three years, educators and advocacy groups have lobbied for a broad-based federal program to help districts build new schools and renovate dilapidated buildings.

Those efforts could pay off this year, as a growing number of Republicans are signing on to what so far has been a primarily Democratic priority. Some are supporting a proposal similar to the five-year, $24.8 billion construction plan offered by President Clinton, and others are considering broad plans of their own.

"There is a softening underbelly of Republicans on this issue because of public awareness," said Arnold F. Fege, the president of Public Advocacy for Kids, a Washington-based nonprofit consulting group. "I don't think they can go into an election year without some kind of school construction bill."

House Democrats are looking for an opportunity to vote on the issue, believing they have enough support to get a measure passed.

Last week, 15 Republicans joined in a bipartisan initiative introduced by Reps. Charles B. Rangel of New York, the senior Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, and Nancy L. Johnson, R-Conn., who is also a member of the committee. Their bill, called the Better Classrooms Act, would provide for an estimated $25 billion in interest-free or low-interest bonds for districts, a plan similar to Mr. Clinton's. ("House OKs Spending Blueprint," March 29, 2000.)

If all 211 House Democrats and two Independents supported the bill, they would need only five Republicans to join them to win passage.

"Having a bipartisan approach is a major step forward," said Scott Fleming, the Department of Education's assistant secretary for legislation and congressional affairs. "We've talked forcefully about this issue and what the need is, and [members of Congress] understand this has an impact in their backyards."

Ms. Johnson and Democratic members of the House hope to offer their bill as a counterproposal to GOP-backed legislation on education savings accounts, which offers tax breaks to parents saving money for education expenses. Under the Republican plan, parents could begin using the accounts for such costs as private school tuition.

Republican leaders canceled a vote on the education-savings-accounts legislation late last week, and it was unclear whether they would reschedule the vote for this week. Mr. Rangel called that cancellation a sign that the leaders were afraid they lacked the votes to defeat his school construction bill.

GOP Opposition Stands

So far, Republican leaders in both the House and the Senate oppose the Johnson-Rangel plan and similar initiatives.

Trent Duffy, a spokesman for Republicans on the House Way and Means Committee, said the committee's chairman, Rep. Bill Archer of Texas, and others object to such measures because they would involve the federal government in what traditionally has been a responsibility of state and local governments. In addition, they argue, federal labor requirements that would kick in as a result of the new involvement could drive up construction costs.

The legislation on education savings accounts contains a construction proposal by Mr. Archer that would allow districts to save money on interest costs by tweaking existing tax laws.

While some school groups believe that plan is better than nothing, others say it would not do nearly enough. A soon-to-be-released study by the National Education Association, for instance, says that Mr. Archer's plan would save districts only $8.62 per $1,000 worth of bonds. The Johnson-Rangel plan would save districts an estimated $624.77 per $1,000 of bonds, according to the NEA.

Mr. Archer's plan has the support of Republican leaders. Privately, though, some House Republicans are considering offering more comprehensive plans on school construction.

"This is a topic that has come up and will continue to come up, but so far, there has been no plan of action," said an aide to the GOP members of the committee. "Most Republicans who are giving thought to this are looking at the possibility of targeting money to meet unfunded mandates."

Another Republican, Rep. Judy Biggert of Illinois, proposed a separate bill last month that would offer states low-interest federal loans to help districts save money on the interest on construction bonds. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine, has offered a similar proposal.

$254 Billion Repair Bill

Last week, the NEA sent advisories to members of Congress in anticipation of a vote on the Johnson-Rangel proposal. The union's new report, to be released later this month, estimates that $254 billion is needed for new school construction and renovations using a state by state analysis. In 1995, the General Accounting Office estimated the need to be $112 billion.

Ms. Johnson decided to propose a school construction initiative after talking with constituents and looking at data, such as the NEA's estimate that the average school building is more than 42 years old, said her spokesman, David White.

Democrats, meanwhile, believe that more of her Republican colleagues will be enticed to follow her lead.

"When your opponents are not that opposed, you have hope," said Dan Maffei, an aide to Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee. "Getting bipartisan support in the open is the next big step."

Vol. 19, Issue 30, Pages 23-24

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