Education Funding

A Lifelong Advocate Explains Why the Feds Need to Invest in the Nation’s School Buildings

By Mark Lieberman — May 13, 2021 6 min read
A trash can and pink kiddie pool are used to collect water that leaks from the roof into the media center at Green County High School in Snow Hill, N.C..
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When Mary Filardo was a child, her father was the superintendent of a rural school district in Illinois—a one-room school house, in fact.

“Animals on platforms in barns were in better conditions than kids in schools,” in that district, she recalled.

Her father led the push for a bond referendum to replace the building and consolidate several of the district’s schools into larger, nicer facilities.

The issue of school building upkeep stared Filardo in the face once again as an adult, when her two children attended the dilapidated Oyster-Adams Bilingual School in the District of Columbia. She led a group of parents who successfully pushed for a public-private partnership to upgrade the school built in 1926, presaging a citywide school modernization initiative years later.

It’s no surprise, then, that Filardo has become one of the nation’s foremost advocates for addressing longstanding neglect of K-12 school building infrastructure. In 1994, she formed the nonprofit 21st Century School Fund, and in 2016 she founded the [Re]Build America’s School Infrastructure Coalition (BASIC), a collection of more than 100 public and private organizations that support school modernization.

Now as Congress takes up President Joe Biden’s proposals to upgrade the nation’s infrastructure, Filardo could see the culmination of her efforts over the last couple decades to make the case that the federal government—not just states and local school districts—should play a major role in ensuring that all students, whether in wealthy or poor communities, can learn in safe, well-maintained, adequately sized school buildings.

Mary Filardo

“What we know from back channels is that there’s support for it that’s more bipartisan than people want to make it seem,” Filardo, who testified April 28 at a U.S. House of Representatives hearing on infrastructure, said in an interview with Education Week. “The politics are so strong. We feel optimistic. This has never really been closer.”

But she hasn’t won the fight just yet. The federal government is considering two competing proposals for investing in school infrastructure. The extent of Congress’ appetite for trillions of dollars in new spending remains to be seen. Schools are facing considerable financial pressure from other directions, like the need to address students’ mental health, learning loss, and teacher compensation.

“Sometimes the money comes and that’s the easy part,” Filardo said. “The hard part is really getting it to the low-income communities first and getting good value from it.”

Here are four key points Filardo makes about how school infrastructure spending currently works, how it ought to work, and what it will take to get it right.

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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

Schools don’t have to wait for Biden’s infrastructure plan to pass to get started

The American Rescue Plan, a massive federal stimulus package signed into law in March, offers schools the opportunity to get a jump start on addressing backlogs of maintenance needs, Filardo said.

On a webinar hosted this week by AASA, the School Superintendents Association, Filardo recommended school districts set aside 15 percent of those federal funds for school building fixes like repairing crumbling roofs, improving ventilation and air flow, and closing leaks. That would amount nationally to a $20 billion down payment nationwide on school infrastructure before the federal government takes any more steps to invest.

Some school districts have already made plans along those lines, while others are still hashing out the specifics of their expenses, or waiting on their state to detail how they can use the funds. The good news is that schools don’t need to rush, particularly for capital projects that tend to take time—schools have until 2024 to spend the American Rescue Plan funds.

Bonds will exacerbate existing inequities, while grants could bridge gaps.

A bill in the U.S. House would allocate $100 billion in grants and $30 billion in bonds to school districts for infrastructure work. President Joe Biden’s proposal calls for $50 billion in grants and $50 billion in bonds.

Filardo strongly prefers the House proposal, because of both the higher dollar amount and the emphasis on grants over bonds. School districts in high-income areas have an easier time issuing bonds, which often require voter approval and a strong credit rating.

As a result, government programs centered around bonds can perpetuate inequitable access to funds among districts by putting areas with high concentrations of low-income students at a disadvantage. That’s especially problematic since many of those areas also have the biggest infrastructure needs.

The U.S. has thousands of tiny school districts, in part because of racial segregation. Filardo argues those districts are particularly behind when it comes to funding construction and renovation.

“The lowering of the grant program in half was a real blow to the lowest-income districts and really the highest-need cities where they’re already burdened with a tremendous amount of debt,” Filardo said. “Local school districts have about a half trillion dollars in local school bond debt. It’s not that they’re not trying. They need the federal help.”

We’re just going to consume what our parents and grandparents gave us? We’re not going to leave anything for our kids and grandkids?

Communities benefit when school infrastructure improves

Filardo has been heartened by the emphasis in federal proposals on the importance of planning and data management at the district and state level. For too long, she said, districts have dealt with infrastructure “on a reactive basis,” funding a project when the need becomes too great to ignore, or years after it ought to have been resolved. A more proactive approach will pay off for years to come.

“If you’re going to raise up the bottom, the bar for what’s average goes up for all of us,” Filardo said. “It’s not OK for schools not to have bathrooms fully functioning. It’s not OK for schools not to have a mechanical ventilation system that brings in the fresh air. It’s frankly not OK that teachers and kids are some of the only workforce that’s on a day-to-day basis in un-air-conditioned spaces when it’s 90 degrees outside.”

Biden’s infrastructure proposals include several other priorities that touch schools, beyond the section specifically focused on education. His administration is calling for $100 billion to achieve universal home broadband access by 2030, and $45 billion to replace all of the nation’s lead pipes, including those in schools.

Filardo sees the overall initiative as a much-needed acknowledgement of the interconnected nature of the infrastructure issues facing American cities and towns. She’s hopeful that modernized schools can take their place as hubs of activity for their communities.

“Your elder population and elementary schools can be planning play space programming together. You should be able to integrate libraries in your schools in new ways. Green roofs are going to address overall stormwater management,” Filardo said. “There are ways that this program could be the nexus of real community investment and neighborhood reinvestment.”

Advocating for school building infrastructure is a long game

Filardo thinks often about a moment shortly after her children left Oyster-Adams and moved on to middle school. She told the president of the school’s PTA, “My kids never went to a modernized school in D.C. at Oyster.”

His response? “That’s OK. We’ll carry it on. We won’t drop the advocacy for this.”

That moment showed Filardo that some fights have to play out over many years, or even generations.

Seventy years after the Oyster-Adams school was built, Filardo found herself advocating for continuing its role in her community, in part to honor the people who put it there. She sees the current push for improving schools on the same continuum.

“We’re just going to consume what our parents and grandparents gave us? We’re not going to leave anything for our kids and grandkids?” Filardo said of the nation’s failure to modernize and replace aging schools. “If we don’t do it now, they have a much bigger hole to dig out of.”

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