President's School Construction Plan Debated

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The stories are familiar to school administrators: gaping holes in school roofs, crumbling walls etched with lead paint, heating systems that don't work, and other serious structural problems that have become commonplace in many districts.

Other educators talk of endless rows of flimsy portable classrooms hauled in to deal with overcrowding, or "multipurpose" rooms that serve as cafeterias, gyms, libraries, and assembly rooms for an entire school.

Unless school leaders can persuade wary voters to pass bond referendums or raise local taxes, there's often little hope of change, and their plights have rarely received attention from Washington lawmakers.

But this year, school construction has become one of the hottest education topics on Capitol Hill.

Armed with photos of decaying school buildings, President Clinton and Democrats are pressing their plans to urge districts to invest in construction and repairs.

The president was in Florida last week and had planned to visit a crowded school, but a knee injury forced him to cut short his trip. "Even as I get my knee repaired, I want the nation to focus on how to repair and rebuild our nation's schools," he said late last week.

The plan, outlined in the proposed 1998 budget Mr. Clinton sent to Congress last month, would give a one-time, $5 billion influx to pay up to half of the interest on school construction bonds.

But members of the GOP majority in Congress warn that federal labor laws that apply to federally financed construction projects could drive up costs in some districts and wipe out the value of the interest aid. And in a continuation of the long-running philosophical debate between their party and the Democrats, Republicans are resistant to what they call federal interference in a local issue.

Even some advocates of President Clinton's proposal worry that the money would not reach schools in the most impoverished districts or that needy rural schools would be passed over in favor of more visible inner-city districts.

Spur to Spending

The Department of Education says the administration's approach would provide an incentive over four years for school boards to repair existing buildings and construct new ones. About half the money would go to the 100 neediest districts; the rest would go to states for grants to needy districts as they see fit.

The Democrats' argument is that the federal aid would spur $20 billion in school construction projects in the next four years, a 25 percent increase. Supporters say the program would give voters a short, "now or never" opportunity to pay for new buildings with the help of Uncle Sam.

Though $5 billion may look daunting to skeptical congressional appropriators concerned with balancing the federal budget, it would make barely a down payment on the work that needs to be done, according to estimates from the General Accounting Office.

In 1995, the GAO estimated that it would take $112 billion to upgrade the nation's schools to "good" condition. Of that, $11 billion is needed just to meet federal requirements on accessibility for the disabled and elimination of hazardous asbestos and radon.

The GAO estimated that one-third of schools nationwide needed extensive repair or replacement in one or more buildings--affecting 14 million students. It found that wide disparities existed even within some districts.

A big part of the problem, officials say, is that districts have deferred maintenance on buildings--many of which were shoddily built--because the money was needed elsewhere.

'Bricks and Mortar'

The construction plan would be the first time the federal government helped support broad-based projects historically financed by local property taxes and bonds. A 1994 plan to provide $100 million for poor districts, sponsored by Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill., passed Congress, but it was rescinded the next year after the GOP won control. ("Senators Say Funding To Fix School Likely Budget Target," Feb. 8, 1995.)

Although the Education Department in its fiscal 1996 budget said that it opposed new grant programs for school construction--and even supported the reversal of Sen. Moseley-Braun's program--Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley insists that the president's plan is only about finance.

"The federal government has never gotten involved in bricks and mortar, and we don't intend to here," Mr. Riley said at a House hearing last week. "The construction of school buildings is a state and local function."

Saying that students cannot be expected to learn in buildings that are environmental hazards, Democratic Senate leaders called the plan one of the most important education initiatives this year. "This is more than the appearance--this is the substance of education," Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said at a recent news conference.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., summed up his views: "There's nothing local, federal, or intergalactic about this issue."

But the top House Republican on education issues, Rep. Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, recently predicted that Mr. Clinton's plan may not stand much chance of survival. ("Skeptics Greet Clinton Plan's First Appearance in Congress," March 12, 1997.)

Davis-Bacon Impact

Both sides debate the impact of the Davis-Bacon Act, the federal law enacted during the Depression that requires federal construction projects to pay workers so-called prevailing wages, which typically are the union wages paid to different classifications of employees in the area.

House Republicans estimate that the Davis-Bacon law would tack an additional 10 percent to 20 percent onto the cost of school projects financed under the Clinton plan. That would cancel any interest savings, they say.

But department officials say that many states and localities already have some version of Davis-Bacon and that any higher costs may be offset by better-quality work. The Department of Labor has not yet tallied the number of districts already subject to such state and local laws.

Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators, said that while the Davis-Bacon law would raise the price tag for school construction, it likely would not drive up costs enough to cause a district to abandon a project. "Every penny in school construction means something," he said.

A version of the proposal is included in S 12, the Democrats' all-encompassing education bill. The department unveiled its legislative proposals last week, which Democrats plan to introduce this week.

Taxpayer Resistance

In any case, getting the measure through Congress would only be the first feat. Some education leaders say it is getting tougher to pass bond issues when local residents, many of whom do not have school-age children, want lower taxes and are wary of how districts will manage the funds.

The AASA does not keep national data on the percentage of school bond initiatives that pass each year, but Mr. Hunter estimates that voters reject about half.

Some Republicans want to know why the federal government should help bail out local taxpayers. Rep. John Edward Porter, R-Ill., the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on education, suggested last week that school board members should be held liable for allowing their buildings to deteriorate.

Others just blame the tax system. They say districts' heavy dependence on the local property tax is why some suburban districts enjoy state-of-the art facilities, while nearby city districts with narrower tax bases have dilapidated buildings. Some say property-tax breaks for businesses have siphoned off money needed for schools. ("Despite Rhetoric, Businesses Eye Bottom Line," This Week's News.)

And even if a bond passes, it rarely provides enough money to meet the needs of districts with fast-growing populations, said Carole Kennedy, the president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

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