Senators Say Funding To Fix Schools Likely Budget Target

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Budget-cutters in Congress and the White House are targeting the first major federal funding for school repairs, lawmakers said last week.

Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill., delivered this warning at a news conference to release new federal findings that U.S. schools need some $112 billion to upgrade or repair their facilities.

The report, the first federal survey of school facilities in 30 years, estimates that one-third of the nation's 80,000 public schools need extensive repairs or replacement.

Roughly 100 school districts across the country are scheduled to receive grants from the $100 million that Congress authorized for such purposes last year, Education Department officials said. But that amount is expected to be cut before it can be released to schools.

"One of the reasons we're having this press conference is to say to the Administration, 'Wake up,"' Mr. Harkin said. The Clinton Administration's support for the funding "has not been overwhelming, but it has not been 'no,"' he said.

Education lobbyists confirmed that the construction program is one of several education programs authorized for the first time last year that are likely to be eliminated in this year's budget cuts.

"We think it's real vulnerable," said John B. Forkenbrock, the vice president of the Committee for Education Funding, a coalition of education groups that lobbies for federal aid.

G.O.P. lawmakers, now in the majority, have shown little interest in the program, and it is not a high priority for the Administration, either, Mr. Forkenbrock said.

A New Federal Role

Passage of the program last year represented the first big allocation of federal money for school construction.

The Education Department earmarks some funds--$12 million in last year's budget--for school construction and renovation through its impact-aid program for districts that have students whose parents work or live on military installations or Indian reservations.

The new funding is to be targeted to poor districts with serious facilities problems.

"It is inherently unfair to hold our children to nationwide standards if they do not have an equal opportunity to learn," Ms. Moseley-Braun said at the news conference.

Critics of the construction funding argued last year that school facilities are a state and local issue.

Mr. Harkin and Ms. Moseley-Braun, however, pointed to the new estimate of school-repair needs as evidence that the poor condition of school buildings is a problem that states and localities need help addressing.

The estimate was based on the findings of a General Accounting Office survey of 10,000 schools in more than 5,000 districts nationwide.

Its findings include:

  • Nearly one in five schools reported that repairs were needed to meet life-safety codes, which cover such areas as fire walls, sprinkler systems, and adequate exits.
  • New York City estimates its school-construction needs at $8 billion; Chicago reports a need of $2.9 billion.
  • The average amount of the most recently approved bond issue was $7 million. About half of that money was for school construction, while 38 percent paid for repairing, renovating, and modernizing schools.

Finance Suits

Adding to the urgency of such problems are the possible implications for states' school-finance systems. Recent court decisions that struck down the finance systems in Ohio and Arizona, for example, cited poor facilities as evidence of disparities in funding.

"This court saw grown men and women cry as they explained the conditions and situations in which some of the youths in this state are educated," wrote Judge Linton D. Lewis Jr. of Perry County, Ohio, in his ruling last summer on that state's system. (See Education Week, July 13, 1994.)

Although the Texas Supreme Court ruled that state's new school-finance system constitutional last week, state officials there said they still see a need to improve school conditions. (See related story.)

"We are still studying the court's decision to determine what must be done with school-facilities funding," Lieut. Gov. Bob Bullock of Texas said in a written statement, "but something should be done regardless of the court order."

Vol. 14, Issue 20

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