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$100 Billion Plan to Repair, Upgrade Schools Passes Key Committee

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 26, 2019 2 min read
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The House education committee has backed legislation that would provide about $100 billion for school infrastructure.

Tuesday’s vote in favor of the Rebuild America’s Schools Act signalled committee Democrats’ willingness to work quickly on one of their top declared priorities for this Congress—Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the committee chairman, and other Democrats introduced the bill less than a month ago. The committee voted 26-20 to report the bill to the full House for consideration; however, their relatively quick work of the bill is far from a guarantee that its prospects are bright.

The Rebuild America’s Schools Act would provide $70 billion in direct federal spending for school modernizations, renovations, repairs, and similar work, and another $30 billion in tax-credit bonds. School districts receiving aid under the law, under competitive-grant programs run by the states, would also have to prioritize infrastructure projects at schools that serve the highest shares of students receiving free and reduced-price meals under the National School Lunch Act.

In remarks before the vote, Scott said public schools in the U.S. are at a “literal breaking point” and noted that one estimate found that school infrastructure is shortchanged by $46 billion every year. Republicans countered that the bill would only layer more regulations and bureaucracy on a problem local communities are better equipped to handle.

States would also have to create public, searchable databases of the state of each school’s infrastructure, including the age of things like its heating, plumbing, air conditioning, roofs, and other components. These databases would also have to show whether a school is close to a toxic site or particularly vulnerable to natural disasters.

In committee, lawmakers adopted an amendment from Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., to ban Rebuild America’s Schools Act money from being directed to for-profit charter school operators.

However, they rejected an amendment from Rep. Rick Allen, R-Ga., to amend the legislation to prohibit the federal government from denying funds to schools that have decided to arm their teachers or other school personnel. Read more about the controversial subject of arming teachers from last summer here.

The U.S. education secretary would have the power to approve a state application for these funds.

While President Donald Trump and Democrats alike have talked up the prospect of a big infrastructure spending program, turning the talk into action has proven difficult, to say the least. For one thing, the Trump administration has not pushed for schools to get any specific piece of the pie in their infrastructure proposals (although a $1.5 billion slice of a previous plan from the Trump team could in theory have gone to schools). And while fixing up HVAC units and shoring up leaky roofs might be popular in the House, which is controlled by Democrats, the GOP-run Senate could easily decide to ignore the legislation.

The bill has 164 co-sponsors in the House, and all of them are Democrats, although Scott said when he introduced the bill that he believes the proposal has bipartisan appeal.

It’s important to remember that the legislation only authorizes the spending on school infrastructure; Congress would still need to provide the funding through the appropriations process.