President Joe Biden proposed a $2 trillion infrastructure plan Wednesday that would provide $100 billion for new school construction and upgrades to existing buildings, meeting a long-time push by some education advocacy groups.
Separate parts of the American Jobs Plan would also provide $100 billion to expand broadband internet access and $45 billion to replace lead pipes around the country, which would reduce lead exposure in 400,000 schools and child-care facilities, the White House said.
The massive proposal comes after Congress passed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, a COVID-19 relief bill that included an unprecedented infusion of cash for schools. And, while infrastructure has been seen as an area of possible bipartisan compromise in recent years, the American Jobs Plan is sure to face resistance from members of Congress who have called for less government spending or more-targeted proposals.
The infrastructure plan would be paid for over 15 years by increasing corporate tax rates and closing tax loopholes, backtracking on some cuts made through a tax bill signed into law by President Donald Trump.
Dating back to his time as a candidate, Biden has frequently mentioned school buildings alongside more typical infrastructure priorities, like roads and bridges.
“How many schools [are there] where the kids can’t drink the water out of the fountain?” Biden said at a press conference last week. “How many schools are still in the position where there’s asbestos? How many schools in America we’re sending our kids to don’t have adequate ventilation?”
Those concerns have been highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic as some administrators say crowded or dated school buildings make it difficult to carry out recommended procedures, like social distancing, to reduce the risk of transmission. Some of those concerns can be addressed through K-12 aid provided through multiple federal relief bills that have already been enacted.
But the White House says there is more work to be done. It cited a report by the American Society of Civil Engineers that gave America’s school infrastructure a D+ grade.
That’s why groups like national teachers’ unions and the Center for American Progress have pushed to include schools in federal infrastructure spending for years.
Organizations including Chiefs for Change and the National Association of Secondary School Principals praised Biden’s plan Wednesday.
“As the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the inequities of every system in America, the need to improve our nation’s public-school facilities has never been more acutely apparent,” National Education Association President Becky Pringle said in a statement.
But some Republican members of Congress have not been receptive to the push to include school facilities in infrastructure bills, saying that proposals should be more narrowly targeted to address needs like highway upgrades. That’s in part because K-12 education is largely funded and governed at the state and local levels, and they see a more limited federal role.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, called Biden’s proposal “a Trojan horse for the largest set of tax hikes in a generation” Wednesday. He said in a statement that the nation needs a “serious, targeted infrastructure plan” that focuses more on roads and bridges.
Biden’s plan would direct $50 billion in grants and an additional $50 billion to be “leveraged through bonds” to help cover the costs of school construction, according to a White House fact sheet. The funds would first be prioritized to health and safety upgrades, like ventilation. The funding would also be used to “invest in cutting-edge, energy-efficient and electrified, resilient, and innovative school buildings with technology and labs that will help our educators prepare students to be productive workers and valued students,” the plan says.
The plan would provide an additional $100 billion to help expand broadband access in communities nationwide. This funding would not be targeted at schools, but it would help address the lack of reliable internet that has made remote learning and homework difficult for many students. Funding to help address that concern was also including in the COVID-19 relief bill.
And Biden’s infrastructure proposal would provide $45 billion for the Environmental Protection Agency’s existing Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and in Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act. Resulting upgrades would help homes, businesses, and schools, the White House said.
Concerns about lead exposure in children have become more prominent as Flint, Michigan, grapples with a water crisis that has led to a surge in need for special education services for affected children.
In a 2017 report, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office found that fewer than half of schools it surveyed had tested their water for lead within the previous year.
The K-12 portions of Biden’s infrastructure plan mirror previous bills proposed by Democrats in the House and Senate, which also called for $100 billion for school facilities.
The new proposal will likely change as Congress works to convert it into legislation and win support from members. And it is unlikely to win adequate GOP support to win the 60 Senate votes needed to bring it to a vote under current rules. Democratic leaders may seek to pass it through budget reconciliation, a process that requires a simple majority.