Education Funding

Why Dems’ $82 Billion Proposal for School Buildings Still Isn’t Enough

By Mark Lieberman — September 09, 2021 4 min read
Founded 55 years ago, Foust Elementary received its latest update 12-25 years ago for their HVAC units. If the school receives funds from the Guilford County Schools bond allocation, they will expand classrooms from the back of the building.
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House Democrats announced a proposal this week for $82 billion in federal grant funding and a requirement for states to provide 10 percent in matching funds to improve the nation’s school buildings.

But schools nationwide will need far more than that to address worsening facilities conditions, two new reports emphasize.

The latest plan in Congress to fund school facilities comes as federal Democratic lawmakers are moving forward with a broad package of nationwide infrastructure investments. The dollar figure and shape of the school facilities component are likely to change before the bill passes, if it does at all.

Advocates hoped a bipartisan group of lawmakers would include funding for schools in their narrow infrastructure investment package that’s currently working its way through Congress. Instead, they’re hoping to see funding included as part of a funding package that will move through lawmakers’ reconciliation process for budget-related items.

In the meantime, the needs are ever-growing, according to the new “State of Our Schools” report from a coalition of organizations including the National Council on School Facilities, the 21st Century School Fund, and the International Well Building Institute.

U.S. schools currently spend roughly $110 billion per year on facilities. The report, following up on a similar 2016 study, asserts that schools are collectively investing $85 billion less per year in building construction and improvements than would be needed to achieve full modernization. That number reflects a $25 billion increase, adjusted for inflation, over the dollar gap identified in the 2016 report.

Rural areas, and areas with high percentages of low-income students and students of color, tend to be further behind than urban, low-poverty, and majority-white areas. High-poverty districts spent 37 percent less on facilities during the last decade than low-poverty districts, according to the report. Rural school districts, meanwhile, spent half the national average on facilities during the same period.

Thousands of school buildings are in disrepair thanks to minimal state and federal investment in school construction over the last few decades. Some states contribute nothing to local school districts for facilities work, leaving them to raise funds from local taxes if they can or languish if they can’t. On average, 77 percent of funding for schools’ facilities projects comes from local sources, according to the report.

Evidence has been building for years that students learn better, and staff work better, in buildings that are safe and well-maintained.

But the federal government hasn’t made a significant investment in school facilities since the Great Depression. As a result, school districts have been saddled with crushing debt. In fiscal year 2019, schools collectively spent $20 billion on interest for long-term debt—more than the entire annual federal Title I allocation for disadvantaged students across the country, the report says.

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A worker finishes up for the day at the Cardoza Senior High School, as renovations are under way, Monday, March 11, 2013 in Washington.
A worker finishes up for the day at the Cardoza Senior High School, as renovations are under way, Monday, March 11, 2013 in Washington.
Alex Brandon/AP

In a statement Thursday, a collection of K-12 advocates known as the BASIC Coalition praised the House Democrats’ plan, calling it “a momentous milestone for equitable advancements in education for our nation’s traditionally underserved communities.”

There’s plenty of evidence, though, that this plan alone would fall short of transformative change. The North Carolina state education department this month released a report that identified $13 billion of urgent school facilities needs in the state. That would be the equivalent of 15 percent of the entire proposed nationwide federal investment.

As with the nationwide figures, the dollar amount of need in North Carolina has grown significantly in the last five years, from $8 billion in the 2015-2016 school year, the report says. A projected 2 percent enrollment increase is among the factors driving the higher estimated costs.

School communities are taking notice. During a protest at the North Carolina state capital last weekend, a parent laid out the situation at Joyner Elementary, as reported by the TV station WFMY News 2: “We don’t drink the water at Joyner. There is often mold in the hallways. Pipes have burst and flooded our schools. And the temporary fixes aren’t able to keep the school mold free.”

The same parent said her son has come home sick on several occasions because the air conditioning in the school doesn’t work, and several fans she’s bought for her son’s teachers can’t make up the difference.

So far this school year, the district has received more than 700 work orders from its 120-plus school buildings, WFMY News 2 reported. Without new sources of funding, they could take 10 years to process, school officials said.

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Image of an excavator in front of a school building.
iStock/Getty

Federal pandemic relief aid looks like it will help some schools make a dent in their facilities needs. In a recent survey by AASA, the School Superintendents Association, one-third of districts said they plan to spend at least 16 percent of funds on improving their facilities.

But one-quarter of superintendents said the three-year deadline for spending the funds is an obstacle to investing more in construction and maintenance. Schools across the country are currently struggling under the weight of surging materials costs, overwhelming demand for contractors, and burdensome approval processes.

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