A new Senate Republican proposal unveiled Thursday for federal investment in the nation’s infrastructure does not include any money for school construction and renovation, lowering the odds that it will be a priority for the Biden administration and Congressional Democrats in a package they hope to have signed into law later this year.
School building advocates are disappointed with the proposal after decades of lobbying for federal support for K-12 infrastructure. Some are urging districts to prioritize renovation and construction with a portion of the dollars they’re receiving from recent federal stimulus packages.
“Our system of financing K-12 infrastructure is not actually capable of delivering the amount of revenue that’s needed to support the rebuilding of 50-plus-year-old buildings,” said Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund and a leading advocate for federal K-12 infrastructure funding. “That’s why it makes sense for the federal government to come to the table.”
President Joe Biden in March proposed the American Jobs Plan, which would amount to $2.3 trillion in federal spending on a broad list of priorities, including roads, bridges, waterways, public transportation, and airports.
Several of that plan’s initiatives focus on K-12 schools:
- $50 billion in grants and $50 billion in bonds for school building improvements;
- $20 billion for electrifying school buses;
- $45 billion for eliminating the nation’s lead pipes, including those that send water to schools; and
- $100 billion to achieve broadband connectivity in every home by 2030, which would enable all K-12 students to do homework and learn online from home.
The one-page Republican proposal omits the first three items, and shrinks the proposed broadband investment to $65 billion. It also proposes a total of only $257 billon in new investments, less than one-sixth of what the Biden administration wants to spend.
Biden has said he would prefer for Congress to pass an infrastructure bill with bipartisan support, rather than forge ahead with Democratic votes alone. His administration has spent the last few weeks in talks with Senate Republicans, aiming to find common ground on aspects of an infrastructure package that could garner at least 10 Republican votes in the Senate to overcome the 60-vote threshold for legislation that’s not directly tied to the federal budget.
Republicans have blasted the American Jobs Plan as wasteful spending and a departure from the traditional definition of infrastructure. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., told CNBC in April that she believed Republicans in Congress would not have an appetite to invest in “extra infrastructure areas” like schools and home health aides.
In a statement Thursday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration is concerned about the omission in the Republican plan of several key priorities, including the plan to abandon lead pipes nationwide.
School advocates also expressed disappointment with the Republicans’ counteroffer.
“I think it’s highly possible that schools could be left out of whatever infrastructure proposal moves forward on Capitol Hill. We are fighting again to make sure that doesn’t happen,” said Chris Rogers, policy analyst at AASA, the School Superintendents Association. AASA supports a House bill, the Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act, that would direct $130 billion in federal funds to school infrastructure—$30 billion more than Biden is proposing.
Filardo said she hopes Biden will ultimately commit to his stated spending goals, even if it means failing to successfully reach across party lines. She’s especially disappointed Republicans jettisoned the K-12 initiatives, rather than making a case for a smaller federal role for investing in school buildings.
“The responsibility for a federal role is not going to go away if you ignore it,” she said.
Funding for school infrastructure lags far behind documented need
The National Council for School Facilities estimates the nation is spending roughly half of what it needs to on an annual basis to keep up with routine building maintenance, modernize aging systems, and stay ahead of enrollment growth and rapid advancements in technology. Many school buildings nationwide are dilapidated and overcrowded, and air quality in school buildings and buses is a major concern that affects academic performance and student well-being.
Funding for school building improvements, which can take years from conception to execution, is distinct from schools’ annual operational funds for expenses like staff salaries, curriculum, and digital devices. Aside from a handful of narrowly targeted grants, the federal government’s last major investment in K-12 school buildings was before World War II, during the Franklin D. Roosevelt presidency.
Many school districts perpetually struggle to scrounge up enough local revenue for projects to improve building infrastructure, and state investment varies widely, with roughly a dozen states offering no funding for school construction projects.
K-12 education has already received a significant infusion of federal dollars in the last year, thanks to three rounds of stimulus aid to help with recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. On a recent webinar for school administrators, Filardo recommended districts set aside 15 percent of those funds for school construction. If all districts did that, she said, the nation would be investing an additional $20 billion in school buildings even without additional federal dollars specifically for infrastructure.
Some big districts are already making plans along these lines. Detroit schools will spend $613 million in federal relief dollars to address a maintenance backlog. Philadelphia district leaders plan to devote $325 million—nearly a third of its federal stimulus dollars—to facilities improvements, following a report from the local teachers’ union of widespread asbestos, lead paint, and mold in school buildings. Shelby County Schools in Tennessee plans to combine $240 million of federal dollars with more than double that in state funds to construct and expand school buildings across the district.
Other school districts, however, will struggle to use the funds for construction because of cumbersome federal and state regulations around procurement. Schools are also facing pressure from many directions to invest in initiatives that directly benefit students in the short term, including addressing learning loss, expanding mental health resources, fairly compensating staff and administrators, readying school buildings for full post-pandemic reopening, and keeping digital devices up to date.
The U.S. Department of Education’s new guidance this week for school districts on using the federal stimulus funds permits the use of those dollars for infrastructure projects, but discourages that approach, because renovation and construction “may not be workable under the shorter timelines” of the grants.
Filardo disagrees. “Just about any project can go from start to finish, from a design-and-build for a new high school to ventilation retrofits” within the three years districts have to spend stimulus cash, she said.
School infrastructure is likely to remain a key priority for education advocates in the coming months and beyond. The Biden administration has signaled it wants Congress to move forward with an infrastructure package this summer.