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Education Funding

School Infrastructure Funding in Flux as Senators Advance Package Funding Electric Buses

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 29, 2021 | Updated: August 02, 2021 | Corrected: July 31, 2021 5 min read
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Corrected: This article has been corrected to reflect the total for K-12 and higher education in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The fate of federal funding for school infrastructure projects remains in limbo as Democrats in Congress negotiate a sweeping $3.5 trillion spending package that could support everything from universal prekindergarten to more affordable housing.

Separately, a $550 billion infrastructure plan that cleared a procedural hurdle in the Senate this week does not including funding for K-12 facilities, but would provide $5 billion for zero- and low-emission school buses, as well as $65 billion for broadband internet services, which many students have lacked during the pandemic.

Advocates for school infrastructure funding are hoping to avoid a repeat of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which provided $100 billion for education but did not include infrastructure aid. They also say the pandemic has made new federal support for school facilities especially crucial. Concerns about the pandemic’s impact on school facilities range from faulty or outdated HVAC systems, to concerns that crowded schools might make it more difficult to prevent the transmission of the coronavirus.

And concerns among educators have persisted for years that crumbling schools and facilities hurt students’ academic achievement, as well as staff morale and well-being. Last year, the Government Accountability Office estimated that 36,000 schools had air-system problems. And in 2019, more than half of school districts said they needed to replace multiple building systems.

Democrats are hoping to pass the $3.5 trillion deal through a process known as budget reconciliation, in which Senators can adopt legislation under certain, limited conditions by a simple majority vote instead of adhering to a 60-vote threshold that often stymies bills. (Democrats hold 50 Senate seats and can call on Vice President Kamala Harris as a tie-breaking vote.)

Efforts to finalize the reconciliation package negotiations have intensified after Democrats agreed on the basic outlines of the package in mid-July. However, indications from subsequent negotiations are that the deal might not include more than $20 billion for school infrastructure, Mary Filardo, the executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, said in a July 29 interview. That would be short of what some members of Congress, President Joe Biden, and Filardo’s group have called for.

You can’t implement other things that you care about if you don’t include facilities

On July 28, the [Re]Build America’s School Infrastructure Coalition (also known as BASIC) sent a letter to several Democrats outlining the need for $100 billion in direct grants for school infrastructure in the reconciliation deal. That’s different than the plan Biden released in March that would provide $50 billion in grants and $50 billion in bonds for school construction and facilities as part of the American Jobs Plan that the White House released in March. A bill from Democrats earlier this year would direct $130 billion to help improve school facilities.

The coalition, which consists of more than 130 education and other groups including the 21st Century School Fund, stressed that new money for capital projects would “yield high returns” for many other priorities, from early-childhood education to child nutrition and environmental sustainability, and would address longstanding inequities faced by under-resourced schools.

“You can’t implement other things that you care about if you don’t include facilities,” Filardo in a July 29 interview.

The coalition’s letter also states that schools’ infrastructure needs total $1.1 trillion. Filardo said she would prefer to see the money go out through something like the Title I formula used to distribute aid to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Filardo expressed strong opposition to the idea of using competitive grants because such a strategy wouldn’t truly address inequities in school facilities: “There’s no way that’s the right approach.”

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chairwoman of the Senate education committee who also serves on the appropriations committee and was one of the recipients of BASIC’s letter, said in a Friday statement that, “Our public schools are absolutely part of our infrastructure and we owe it to our kids’ education and their health to invest in upgrading and improving school buildings—and I’m fighting hard to get it done.” Murray is also the assistant Democratic leader in the Senate.

The reconciliation package’s impact on children and schools, if it is adopted, is likely to go far beyond infrastructure. It could ultimately extend the expansion of the child tax credit, and help establish universal prekindergarten for all 3- and 4-year olds, among other things. It remains to be seen how much any final reconciliation deal overlaps with Biden’s proposed American Families Plan. The looming congressional recess in August puts additional pressure on lawmakers to get a deal done soon.

The wheels on the (electric) school bus go round and round as bipartisan deal moves ahead

The separate bipartisan infrastructure deal doesn’t include money for school facilities. But it does include support for student transportation.

Specifically, it would provide $2.5 billion for low-emission school buses and another $2.5 billion for zero-emission buses. This would pay for thousands of electric school buses and help schools replace their current bus fleet, according to the Biden administration.

“In addition, they will help the more than 25 million children and thousands of bus drivers who breathe polluted air on their rides to and from school,” the White House said in a summary of the infrastructure deal. “Diesel air pollution is linked to asthma and other health problems that hurt our communities and cause students to miss school, particularly in communities of color and Tribal communities.”

Harris pitched electric school buses during her own presidential campaign before becoming vice president. She toured an electric bus manufacturer earlier this year.

The infrastructure deal would also provide $55 billion for clean drinking water, including dedicated aid to replace lead services lines, according to the administration, which cited their negative health effects on children. Schools in Flint, Mich., became the face of the crisis stemming from elevated levels of lead in drinking water.

Early details of the infrastructure agreement began to emerge in June. The Senate voted to advance the legislation by a vote of 67-32 on July 28.

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