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Published in Print: May 10, 2000, as NEA Pegs School Building Needs At $332 Billion

NEA Pegs School Building Needs At $332 Billion

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A study released last week by the National Education Association estimates the current price tag for fixing and modernizing the nation's schools, and outfitting them with new technology, at $322 billion.

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Read the entire report, "Modernizing Our Schools: What Will It Cost?," from the NEA.

That figure is nearly three times the $112 billion estimate contained in an influential 1995 report from the U.S. General Accounting Office that drew widespread attention to the need for major improvements in school infrastructure.

The NEA says its report is based on a more comprehensive, state-by-state analysis than the GAO study undertook. The union's report also includes nearly $54 billion for technology improvements, such as wiring for access to the Internet.

Facilities needs range from $333 million in Vermont to $50.7 billion in New York state, according to the report.

While some states could use their current budget surpluses to make immediate improvements, the report says, short-term solutions aren't enough. Long-range measures are needed, the NEA argues, notably the development of detailed state plans for assessing and addressing facilities needs.

The report also calls for increased help from the federal government.

NEA President Bob Chase said the high dollar amounts should help persuade Congress to appropriate more money for school construction, something President Clinton has proposed unsuccessfully for three years.

"We call on Congress to pass meaningful school modernization assistance, including interest subsidies and direct grants and loans that will help address these enormous needs," Mr. Chase said.

The states and individual school districts already are spending near-record amounts on facilities construction and improvement, said Joe Agron, the editor-in-chief of American School & University magazine, which has tracked trends in U.S. school construction for 50 years.

Maintenance Deferred

But the high level of spending doesn't mean all the needs are being met, he added.

"There are a lot of states and a lot of individual districts aggressively and effectively addressing their building needs. They'd be the first to tell you they could always do more," Mr. Agron said.

"A lot of districts, especially in the rural and urban areas, find it very difficult to improve their facilities," he said. "They're the people that would most benefit from federal intervention."

Between January and December of last year, districts completed building projects totaling more than $16 billion, according to data collected by the magazine, which will be published in its annual school construction issue later this month.

The total is down from last year's $17.1 billion, but compared with the $12.4 billion total in 1997, the nation is doing far more than it was just a few years ago, Mr. Agron said.

Current building needs can be attributed to a combination of rising enrollment and the need to renovate schools that were built cheaply during the 1950s and 1960s and have in many cases languished since then, he said.

"The motto was, 'Get 'em up fast and get 'em up cheap.' A lot of maintenance was deferred," Mr. Agron said.

In some districts, especially those in big cities, the buildings are much older than that. Nearly half of New York City's 1,100 schools, for example, were built before 1949.

Whether Congress decides to help states and districts with more money for buildings remains uncertain. Republicans have blocked bills in the past few years, arguing that control of school construction and building projects is best handled at the local level. Some GOP lawmakers favor tax credits for school construction instead.

In a speech last week, Mr. Clinton reiterated his call for more federal spending for school construction. "We have got to give all of our students the facilities they need," he said at a high school in Davenport, Iowa.

Rising Enrollment

Mr. Agron said new sources of money for school buildings must be tapped to help some districts raise the money they need, whether from federal contributions, loans, or rewritten local or state tax codes that lessen dependence on property taxes.

"I believe something more is needed because it is beyond [the power of many] local state and districts," he said.

In many cities and regions, rising enrollment is as much as or even more of an issue than old buildings. Crowded districts such as Los Angeles; Clark County, Nev., which includes Las Vegas; and Broward County, Fla., are building dozens of schools each year, and still aren't keeping pace with the number of new students.

The study used actual building reports from 24 states, then used calculations based on population, available research, and other factors to estimate amounts needed in the remaining 26 states.

Vol. 19, Issue 35, Page 3

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