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Obama to Make Sales Pitch for School Facilities Program

By Alyson Klein — September 13, 2011 4 min read
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President Barack Obama officially released his jobs plan on Monday. And his first stop in selling the nearly $450 billion to jump-start the economy? A visit scheduled today at the Fort Hayes Arts and Academic High School in Columbus, Ohio, to push one piece of the jobs plan: $25 billion aimed at revamping school facilities, plus another $5 billion for retooling community colleges

The jobs plan is pretty broad, and there are lots of pieces that the administration could be highlighting the day after the big reveal. But, apparently, somebody thinks money for fixing-up schools will pack a political punch. Also, interestingly, the visit is to the home state of U.S. Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, the Speaker of the House.

Of course, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan brushed off the idea that the choice of the Buckeye State was political.

“This is not a partisan [issue] the physical conditions of some our aging schools today are shameful,” Duncan said in a conference call with reporters Monday.

But the school facilities program is going to face very long odds. Money for K-12 construction was a major sticking point back in 2009, when a Congress controlled by Democrats crafted the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The architects of that legislation tried very hard to include money for facilities, but it was stripped out at the last minute, to gain support from moderate Democrats and GOP lawmakers.

While at the school, Obama is to chat with the principal about how improved school facilities can boost student learning. And he’ll talk with construction managers about how recent improvements at the school have created jobs locally.

The administration has now spelled out further details on how the school construction funding would flow. Forty percent of it, or $10 billion, would go to the nation’s largest hundred school districts, based on need. The remaining $15 billion would go to states. The states could hold competitions to give out half of that funding, with priority going to rural districts. The rest would go to districts through a formula.

The direct federal grants to the nation’s largest school districts would range from $28.2 million each for the Corpus Christie School District, in Wisconsin, and the Marion County, Fla., school system to $1.63 billion for New York City public schools.

The money couldn’t be used for new school construction. But it could be used for a host of other things, including: emergency repair and renovation, energy efficiency upgrades, and asbestos removal. Schools could build new science and computer labs and revamp infrastructure to better support new technology. They could also use the funds to fix after-school facilities and make modifications under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Twenty-five billion may sound like a lot. But it’s a pretty small fraction of the $270 billion backlog of repairs which is where the White House is pegging the need. That’s the same estimate used in a report by Mary Filardo, the executive director of the 21st Century Schools Fund, Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, and Ross Eisenbrey, the vice-president of the Economic Policy Institute.

Schools would have until Sept. 30, 2012 to spend the funds.

The money isn’t going to make the same amount of different everywhere, said Mike Griffith, the senior school finance analyst for the Education Commission of the States. A million-dollar grant can mean a lot in a small school district, but it might not make a noticeable difference in a larger, wealthier one.

The Obama administration is also proposing $30 billion over two years to help prevent teacher layoffs and spur rehiring. That money would flow to states based on population figures, not based on need—a major criticism of both the ARRA and the $10 billion Education Jobs Fund, which passed in the summer of 2010. The new money would then go to districts based in part on the number of school-age children in the area and the number of children in poverty.

To tap the funds, states would have to show that they are keeping education spending at the same level as last year including for early-childhood education, K-12, and higher education. If they make cuts, they would have to show that cuts to education are proportional to those in other programs, administration officials said.

That language is meant to help head off the “shell games” states were accused of playing with the stimulus and edujobs money, where they cut education programs, moved the money elsewhere, and then used federal dollars to backfill. But Griffith thinks the spending language is “much more stringent” this time.

UPDATE: So just how many jobs would the layoff program save or create? Griffith and ECS are estimating about 356,501 K-12 teachers’ jobs, and 40,511 early learning positions. You can see a state-by-state breakdown,and their methodology, here.

Photo: President Barack Obama, accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden and others, holds up a copy of his American Jobs Act during a statement in the Rose Garden of the White House on Monday. (Susan Walsh/AP)

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