After years of lip service, the federal government is finally taking meaningful steps toward repairing our national infrastructure. The White House’s revised plan promises to improve and expand railways, rebuild roads and bridges, and provide universal internet access. What won’t it do? Repair our crumbling schools.
In October last year, as debates over whether schools could safely reopen raged in Philadelphia and nationwide, the education outlet Chalkbeat reported that two-thirds of Philly elementary classrooms failed to meet minimum ventilation standards, which measure the airflow rate per person. Fifteen schools did not have a single classroom that could safely accommodate more than 14 students.
The School District, pushing for school reopenings, suggested using box fans to alleviate these concerns, but such an ad-hoc solution alarmed parents and teachers. Unfortunately, more substantial repairs are likely out of reach for the district: One 2017 analysis estimated that fixing ventilation in city schools could cost a prohibitive $600 million.
Philadelphia and many districts across the country cannot afford to make needed repairs to their school buildings, which is why in March the Biden administration proposed to allocate $100 billion for this purpose in its infrastructure plan. This represents a huge — and rare — opportunity to make necessary and important investments in school infrastructure.
Republican members of Congress, however, seem unconcerned by the state of the country’s schools: Their counterproposal included no funding for education. In an effort to reach a bipartisan compromise, the Biden administration published a revised version of the plan that excludes investments in school capital funding. Their new proposal’s investment in education is limited to electrifying school buses, expanding broadband access, and eliminating lead pipes. While these are worthy goals, the revised framework fails to address problems that have become so dire that students are put in danger when they attend school.
The pandemic highlighted some school infrastructure issues, such as the lack of space to enable social distancing and inadequate ventilation systems that can’t guard against an airborne pathogen, that remain relevant. But persistent underinvestment in school buildings created problems long before COVID-19.
Here in Philadelphia, the School District has struggled to reduce asbestos levels and lead exposure. My former high school in Burlington, Vt., is temporarily operating out of an abandoned department store because elevated levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were found at the school. Elevated PCBs have also been found in schools in Washington, Connecticut, New York, and West Virginia. The middle school where I taught in Brooklyn lacked reliable air-conditioning; we used rattling window units that would disrupt learning or simply not function. This is a problem at many public schools across the country, even though research shows excessive heat substantially lowers test scores, particularly for low-income, Black, and Hispanic students. High classroom temperatures can force schools to close or threaten the basic health and safety of students and teachers.
The national picture reflects these regional trends. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, during the 2012-2013 school year (the most recent national data available), 24% of U.S. schools were in “fair” or “poor” condition, 31% reported using temporary or portable buildings, and 39% planned to make major repairs within two years. The report estimated that $197 billion would be needed for repairs, renovations, and modernizations for schools to reach “good overall condition.” In its 2021 Infrastructure Report Card, the American Society of Civil Engineers graded U.S. school facilities a D+.
Spending on school infrastructure is good for communities: Evidence suggests it can help increase home values and other research shows that investments in school facilities may boost test scores and attendance. However, despite a clear and urgent need to invest in school buildings, per-student capital spending dipped over the past two decades, and remains lower than it was in 2000.
As the infrastructure plan undergoes further negotiation in the House and Senate, I urge policymakers note the gaping hole that was left when most U.S. schools went virtual last year. The importance of in-person schooling for students, parents, businesses, and society as a whole was thrown into harsh relief when those opportunities were abruptly snatched away. In the fall, schools may once again fulfill their crucial role in society as students return to in-person learning — as long as they remain standing.
Nell Williams, a former sixth grade teacher, is a Ph.D. student in education policy at the University of Pennsylvania. @Nell_Hypothesis