by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
Commentary of the Day - May 25, 2001: America's Crumbling Schools and the Bush Education Budget.
One of the glaring omissions from the current Bush education budget is the lack of any funds to assist state and local governments replace their antiquated, crumbling school buildings. A 1996 Government Accounting Office Study estimated that approximately $112 billion was needed to repair and renovate existing school buildings. Today, that estimate has risen to $127 billion. This does not include funds to build new school buildings to accommodate growing student populations, and to replace schools that are too antiquated to repair. In total, the Coalition to Rebuild America's Schools estimates that nearly $268 billion is needed for repairs, modernization, and new school construction.
While one may quibble about the exact amount needed, the reality is that America's public schools are crumbling. While the need to repair and rebuild schools in the inner cities has received substantial attention, the need is just as great in America's rural areas. In fact, the declining rural population and tax base in the United States have made it very difficult for small town and rural school districts to afford to repair or replace aging school facilities. A report from the American Institute of Architects estimates that approximately 60% of existing school facilities need some major repair such as a new roof, new plumbing, new heating or air conditioning, or new lighting and power systems. As The Irascible Professor noted in a previous article, many of America's schools also have sub-standard fire safety systems.
Meanwhile, the growth in the number of school-age children has far outstripped the capacity of existing school facilities. Nearly 36% of schools now use portable classrooms to accommodate the overflow. Florida currently uses 16,000 "portables", and more than 2,000,000 California school children attend classes in "portables". Unfortunately, many of these portable classrooms offer a substandard learning environment, with inadequate heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems, poor lighting, and poor fire and earthquake safety features.
While the repair and construction of school facilities is largely a state and local responsibility, the federal government can and should help alleviate this problem. For example, HR 1076 (America's Better Classroom Act) would have provided approximately $2.7 billion over the next five years to encourage states to issue bonds for classroom repair and construction. Under this proposed federal-state partnership, the federal funds would be used to cover the interest costs on approximately $25 billion in bonds while the state and local governments would be responsible for repaying the principal. The legislation has been designed in such a way that state and local agencies retain complete control over all spending decisions. Unfortunately, these funds were not included in the Bush education budget; and, without support from the administration there is little likelihood that the bill will pass.
Learning is possible in the worst of environments; however, it seems incongruous that one of the wealthiest nations on the face of the planet would subject its school children to third-world conditions in its school buildings.
Almost all school renovation and construction in the United States is funded by local and state bond issues that require a two-thirds "super-majority" for passage. This is a major impediment, because it gives a determined minority the power to block almost any school bond proposal. Californians recently passed an initiative that reduced the margin required to pass a school bond to 55%. The Irascible Professor favors the passage of similar measures in other states, so that we can give our children a fighting chance to be educated in facilities that are both safe and conducive to learning.
© 2001 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.