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Hillary Clinton Wants Money to Refurbish Schools; What Are the Odds of Getting It?

By Alyson Klein — March 23, 2016 3 min read
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Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a recent Democratic presidential candidates’ debate that—if she wins her bid for the White House—she’d like to resurrect a program from the 1990s that provided federal funds to refurbish and repair crumbling schools.

So what program was she talking about exactly? And more important, could a Potential President Hillary Clinton actually get this done? (Spoiler: Probably not, for reasons we explain below.)

We asked the Clinton campaign the first question and got no response. But she might have been referring to this $1.3 billion proposed school modernization program, which Clinton’s husband, President Bill Clinton, proposed in 2000, said Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding. Bill Clinton wanted the money to go high-need schools with

little or no capacity to repair themselves.

Congress ended up—for one year only—funding a revised, scaled-down version of this proposal, called the School Renovation, IDEA and Technology Grants. The slightly smaller, $1.2 billion program directed funds to help districts refurbish schools that served students in poverty, including charter schools. And it included funding to help schools comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Also in the 1990s, Congress created the Qualified Zone Academy Bonds, or QZAB program, which also helps finance school renovation. These aren’t grants—instead they are bonds. But the federal government provides a tax credit to the bond holder in lieu of interest, essentially allowing states and districts to borrow money to refurbish schools without having to pay interest. There’s about $400 million in bonding authority for this program, Packer said, but QZABs expire at the end of this year.

So, if she wins the Democratic nomination and the White House, will Clinton have luck resurrecting the grant or loan programs? The grant program is a big long shot. Back in 2009, Democratic education chairmen in both chambers of Congress—Rep. George Miller, of California, and Sen. Tom Harkin, of Iowa—tried very, very hard to get school construction into the American Recovery and Reinvestment, aka the stimulus, which was supposed to help create jobs and spur the economy, in part through public infrastructure projects.

And they did not get very far—even though the nation had just overwhelmingly elected a Democratic president (Barack Obama) and the Democrats had huge majorities in both chambers of Congress.

Moderate Republicans who otherwise liked things about the stimulus absolutely refused to vote for federal money for school construction—they saw it as distinct state and local responsibility. Miller and Harkin were able to get money for all sorts of other K-12 priorities—performance pay for teachers, charter schools, state data systems, even what became Race to the Top ... but not for this. It’s hard to imagine Clinton would have better luck, especially if Congress remains in GOP hands.

ARRA did temporarily expand the QZAB program, plus it provided financing for a similar, but bigger program, the Qualified School Construction Bonds, or QSCBs. That program got $11 billion a year for two years, in 2009 and 2010, Packer said. The loan program may have a better shot at resurrection—but it’s unclear which Clinton was referring to in her debate remarks.

BONUS: In case you missed it, we wrote earlier about Clinton’s education team (and all the other candidates’) current and former education advisors. Her top edu-honcho is Ann O’Leary, a senior policy advisor for the campaign. (Great story on her here.) She was Clinton’s legislative director in the Senate and has expertise in early-childhood education, a signature issue of Clinton’s.

And a bunch of Washington, D.C., wonks, some of whom could populate a potential Clinton administration Education Department or White House, recently held a fundraiser for her. See who hosted here.

SHOUTOUT: A big thanks to Packer, the Ultimate Edu-Budget Smarty Pants, for his research help here. We will miss him when he retires this month.

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