A new federal investment in school facilities would help raise student achievement, save school districts money on energy costs, and spur the troubled U.S. economy, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said at a hearing last week.
But leading committee Republicans said the government should consider other demands for federal education aid before committing to financing school construction projects. And some GOP members of Congress said that labor laws unnecessarily drive up the cost of federally financed school facilities.
The House panel heard testimony Feb. 13 from Democratic lawmakers who have sponsored a spate of bills aimed at providing federal resources for school construction, including so-called “green schools,” which are generally more energy-efficient and seek to maximize natural light.
The federal government hasn’t provided significant funding for school facilities since fiscal 2001, when Congress approved $1.2 billion for school construction costs, Rep. Miller said.
Beginning the following year, with President Bush’s first budget, Washington has provided almost no direct aid to help states and schools pay for school construction and repairs, he said.
“It has remained this way during the entire Bush administration,” the chairman said. Steering federal dollars toward school facilities would create jobs and “inject demand,” he said.
Rep. Miller cited a 2000 estimate by the National Center for Education Statistics that it would take $127 billion to bring the nation’s schools into “good overall condition” and reported that 75 percent of schools were in “various stages of disrepair.”
Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., said members ought to weigh carefully whether Congress could afford to finance school facilities, given that it hasn’t provided enough funding for existing programs, such as aid to the states under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. He suggested that effective educators have a greater impact on student learning than better facilities.
“Our decisions must be based on existing commitments and greatest needs,” Rep. Castle said.
But Rep. Bob Etheridge, D-N.C., a former state schools superintendent, argued that school facilities have a big impact on achievement.
“Some people say that schools can make do with what they’ve got,” he said. “Tell that to the student whose abilities are never realized because his or her schools are so overcrowded he or she never got the individual attention needed.”
Rep. Etheridge has introduced a measure that would help cover the cost of the interest on local school bonds by providing federal tax credits to bondholders. School districts would be responsible for only the principal on the bonds, freeing up some $25 billion in school construction funds, according to Rep. Etheridge. The bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., explained that a bill he is sponsoring would provide grants to states and districts through the Department of Education for energy-efficiency upgrades. Energy is the second-highest operating expense for schools after personnel, he said.
Republicans argued that the impact of any federal aid for school construction would be diminished because of the Davis-Bacon Act, the Depression-era law that requires that federal construction projects pay workers so-called prevailing wages. Those wages typically are the union wages paid to different classifications of employees in the area.
“Research makes it hard to doubt that Davis-Bacon Act ‘prevailing wages’ would inflate the costs of building our children’s schools and threaten salaries for teachers and in-class dollars for technology, textbooks, and supplies,” said Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La. He suggested that the committee consider overhauling the Davis-Bacon law “before imposing it on future school construction projects.”
But Rep. Holt countered that Davis-Bacon’s wage requirements attract better-skilled workers.
“You get more for your dollar,” he argued. “You don’t have to do the work over again.”
The education committee also heard from representatives of districts, think tanks, and business.
Mary Cullinane, the director of an innovation and business-development team at the Microsoft Corp., described how the Redmond, Wash.-based company partnered with the 167,000-student Philadelphia school district to create the “School of the Future,” which was designed as a model facility featuring state-of-the-art educational technology. (“Where Big-City Schools Meet ‘Microsoft Smarts,’” Sept. 20, 2006.)
She urged the lawmakers to consider the power of collaborations between districts and the private sector to create such facilities.
“We must develop deeper, more sustained public-private partnerships,” Ms. Cullinane said. “Today’s students deserve schools that are inspirational, not just functional.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2008 edition of Education Week