Throughout the first year of his presidency, Joe Biden has regularly highlighted the need for investing in school infrastructure. From speeches referencing the lack of safe drinking water and ventilation to the pollution produced by school buses, the subject has been consistently present in the administration’s remarks. The American Society of Civil Engineers echoed these concerns in its release of the nation’s infrastructure report card earlier this year, grading public school facilities with a D+.
This post describes recent developments in the administration’s school infrastructure proposals, highlights areas of underinvestment, and summarizes recent research on how some of these failings might impact students.
On Nov. 15, 2021, President Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into law, with total investments of $1.2 trillion over 10 years (including $550 billion in new spending). The package covers $284 billion in new funds directed toward transportation needs, such as roads, bridges, public transport, railroads, and electric vehicles. The remaining $266 billion in new investments focus on core infrastructure—ranging from improving the power grid, broadband access, and water systems to environmental resiliency and remediation.
But there is one notable category that is missing in the newly minted infrastructure legislation: schools.
In early versions of Biden’s infrastructure plan, the White House outlined a $100 billion investment for “school construction and modernization.” In September 2021, the proposed investment slipped to $82 billion; by late October, all language referencing school investment was removed from the plan. This left many educators, families, and advocates who were previously hopeful about the potential investment disappointed—especially those suffering from the consequences of failing and dangerous school infrastructure.
Reviewing the lack of infrastructure investment
Maintenance on existing school buildings is inadequate in many communities nationwide. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that 53% of school districts said that they need to replace multiple building systems (HVAC, electric, plumbing, gas piping, fire protection, etc.), while 16% of districts have not assessed their building needs in more than 10 years. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, the most recent comprehensive estimate by the Department of Education, from 2014, found that $197 billion would be needed to improve school facilities to a level considered “good.” Dwindling school spending since the Great Recession implies that number might be an underestimate. More recent estimates indicate that $85 billion per year is needed to maintain “good stewardship” of our nation’s schools.
The 21st Century School Fund calculated that districts fund 81% of their capital expenditures with local moneys, with states covering the remaining 19%. This raises obvious equity concerns. Districts and states with higher concentrations of low-income communities may struggle to levy funds for long-term investments, resulting in stocks of poorly maintained facilities and few resources for new ones. Kenneth Shores, Hojung Lee, …….