Formula Targets Building Funds to Neediest Districts

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The Department of Education unveiled legislation last week to target half of its proposed $5 billion for school construction on the 100 school districts with the greatest number of students living in poverty.

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The proposed formula, which is based on the grant formula under the Title I remedial education program, would earmark $2.45 billion for the neediest school systems.

Districts could use the federal money to pay up to half of the interest on school construction bonds. The grants could go toward making repairs, upgrading technology, eliminating hazardous substances, making buildings accessible to special populations, or building new structures.

The plan will likely sound great to school administrators in resource-strapped districts. But there's a catch: Those districts must first persuade voters to pass a bond issue to finance the construction costs.

"If a county didn't go forward with bonds, then obviously this wouldn't help," said Marshall S. Smith, the acting deputy education secretary.

'Help a Great Deal'

Education Department officials said the proposal, which would give districts four years to take advantage of the interest aid, could spur voters to pass a bond referendum for projects that had been put off.

Under the plan, another $50 million would go to American Indian reservations and U.S. territories. States would receive the remaining $2.5 billion in interest aid to award to districts that they deem the neediest.

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said the federal government would form a partnership with districts to "jump-start" badly needed construction.

"This will not solve the entire problem, and was not intended to do that," he said. "But it will help a great deal."

The Education Department estimates that the proposal would affect 4 million students.

According to a 1995 report by the General Accounting Office, about 14 million students attend schools that need extensive repairs or replacement.

The plan, S 456, was introduced in the Senate last week by Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill.

In the House, Reps. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., and Joseph P. Kennedy II, D-Mass., introduced the counterpart bill, HR 1104.

Sen. Moseley-Braun said the initiative was needed to ensure students have the resources to successfully train to enter the workforce.

"By investing in bricks and mortar, the federal government can contribute to a more balanced partnership among all levels of government to rebuild and modernize our schools to serve all children in the 21st century," she said in introducing the bill.

Mr. Riley insists that the proposal would not impose any new regulations on schools.

But Republican lawmakers have warned that labor laws that apply to federally financed construction projects could drive up the cost of work done under the proposed program. ("President's School Construction Plan Debated," March 19, 1997.)

'National Problem'

Mr. Riley said the "baby boom echo" that is swelling school enrollments has heightened the need to spend more money on school construction and repairs.

Before injuring his knee during a visit to Florida earlier this month, President Clinton had planned a stop in Broward County, Fla., which has been dubbed the "portable capital of the world" because of its problems with overcrowding.

About 10,000 new students enter the county's schools each year.

Despite building 36 schools in the past nine years, the county still uses about 2,000 portable classrooms, according to the federal Education Department.

Shortly before returning to Washington, Mr. Clinton defended the plan against critics who assert that it would drive up overall costs.

"Underinvestment in school infrastructure has become a national problem, and it demands national action," he said. "We simply cannot ask our teachers to build up children in buildings that are falling down."

Education Department officials emphasized that students have higher academic achievement in school facilities that are in good condition.

They cited several studies that found pupils in poorly maintained schools had lower academic performance than those in top-quality buildings.

While the proposal would not solve all the problems, education leaders said it zeroes in on a situation that has received inadequate attention.

"It's probably not enough, but at least it calls attention to the need that we have," said Carole Kennedy, the president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

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