Sending a child off to school requires trust: trust that they will be cared for and provided the resources to fulfill their potential. In today’s world, many factors have eroded parents’ peace of mind, and unfortunately, in too many instances, the condition of the school itself gives parents a reason to lose confidence in our education system.  

For some of the 130,000 students enrolled in Philadelphia’s public schools, the buildings where they spend hours every day are causing them to feel sick, miss school, and even become hospitalized. As previously reported, hazards like lead, asbestos, and asthma triggers are too common in their learning environments. 

But, putting all of the blame for underperformance on school district staff misses the point. Funding for public schools across the U.S. has declined greatly since the recession, and the majority lack critical updates needed to provide healthy and safe environments. At all levels of funding and management – school district, state, and federal – we need to invest in the sustainable operation of our public schools.

While most districts, including the School District of Philadelphia, are doing what they can to stem problems caused by deferred maintenance and financial constraints, the reality is that crumbling school infrastructure exists nationwide. We need to support districts if we want them to do better.
Districts require substantial funds to continue providing learning environments that are safe, healthy and comfortable. It’s not an easy feat. School maintenance and operation is labor intensive, and becomes more complex as new technologies are introduced into buildings. Over the years, space allocated for education has also increased, giving districts more to manage – often with no additional funding to do so.

There is a sad irony in the recent media attention on Philadelphia public school conditions. Philadelphia has put impressive effort into improving its schools, particularly around indoor environmental health, and school district staff have done admirable work in recent years. However, there are dozens of schools to reach, years of problems to fix, and only so many resources to allocate. The district says it has more than $4 billion in unmade repairs, the result of aging infrastructure and insufficient resources.

Recently, Gov. Wolf acknowledged this need; his administration pledged $7.6 million toward lead paint and asbestos removal in Philadelphia’s public schools. Coupled with $8 million from the district, this financial backing is one small step to remediate the hazards affecting classrooms right now. But Philadelphia’s schools cannot be sustained by funding that comes only after the worst problems become evident.

Currently it’s estimated that the U.S. is spending only about two-thirds of the $145 billion per year it needs to operate and renew schools to maintain quality and safety standards, according to the 2016 State of Our Schools Report. When communities do have the opportunity to invest in school buildings, they often choose to create safer, healthier, efficient, and sustainable schools. And research shows that making schools green does not have to cost more than traditional building.

Green schools, such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified buildings, improve student health through safer building materials, better air quality, and increased access to natural light and the outdoors. Green school design also focuses on high-quality acoustics and temperature control systems to create comfortable environments that keep students focused and alert. Recent studies, including those included in the 2017 Schools for Health report from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, illustrate the impact of such measures on student health and performance.

Philadelphia seems poised to take steps to make things right. City Council's proposed FY19 budget will provide $180 million to schools to help resolve the district's projected operating deficit, and Gov. Wolf recently called for adoption of a funding formula that will benefit the majority of students in the state. These actions are encouraging, and with the support of the community, much can be accomplished.

Closing the funding gap requires a better understanding of school building conditions in our communities, including accessible information about school indoor air quality, as well as student health and performance. From there, the power rests with taxpayers and voters. Support public funding for school facilities by voting; and once funding is secured, ask for community oversight and pay attention to how funds are spent. A follow-up to the 2016 State of Our Schools report details more recommendations.

Changing how public schools are planned, managed, and funded requires a long-term outlook. The magnitude of what's at stake – our children's future – should compel us to work with our school districts, not against them.

Anisa Heming is director of the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council.