Cami Anderson, Sharon Contreras and Janice Jackson
It has never been more clear how much our country needs infrastructure repair. While cities from New York to Lafourche, Louisiana, face catastrophic flooding and other once-in-a-generation damage, the multitrillion dollar legislative packages working their way through Congress can’t come soon enough.
As we consider these critical investments in our country’s future, we cannot forget the infrastructure necessary to support the education of nearly 50 million children each year.
While politicians can’t seem to agree on the meaning of the word “infrastructure,” too many students attend schools where it rains inside the building when it sprinkles outside – let alone when it rains with the dangerous ferocity we are experiencing with increasing regularity. Children in far too many communities drink water from corroded pipes and eat lunch in cafeterias replete with mold.
Every student deserves to attend a clean, healthy, safe and technologically rich school. Yet, we are far from that reality. The inequity of a school funding system based heavily on local property taxes has been well-documented, but when it comes specifically to school facilities, the inequities are even more flagrant.
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In Guilford County, North Carolina, increasingly warm summers are routinely shutting down schools where antiquated heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems are no match for the sweltering weather. On the first day of classes for Baltimore City Public Schools, 24 schools were dismissed early or closed because of air conditioning issues. Many school buildings, from Texas to Iowa, don’t even have air conditioners in places where temperatures reach more than 90 degrees several months each year.
In Newark, New Jersey, one elementary school was erected 13 years before Abraham Lincoln became president. Some basements still have boilers and insulation that became obsolete in the 1950s. Flooding and floating rats are common on a sunny day – imagine the conditions after a hurricane.
In Chicago, the school district has a whopping $3.5 billion in deferred maintenance. In Guilford County, that number is $2 billion, and for Newark it is more than $1 billion.
And that’s not simply for nice-to-haves like a new stadium or a state-of-the-art science lab. We’re putting off basic repairs and upkeep to ensure our buildings are safe and healthy enough for hundreds of thousands of children to spend their entire day inside for most of year.
Sadly, this level of decay and neglect is not unique to Newark, Chicago or North Carolina. Nor are these the most appalling examples: Schools run by the Bureau of Indian Education have cracked floors and no internet.
Despite the best efforts of many leaders, school infrastructure woes have persisted and accumulated for decades across the country. According to the U.S. Census of Governments, school districts reported spending nearly $600 billion in capital expenditures from 1995 to 2004, yet students in the poorest communities and the most decrepit buildings received the least investment.
A 2006 public school construction report states, “What was true in 1995 is still true today: a school with large minority enrollment, in a district with a high percentage of students from low-income families, is still most likely to be in the worst physical condition.”
There is little to suggest that we have improved upon this disparity even 15 years later.
The federal COVID-19 stimulus dollars were helpful in terms of mitigating the recent impact of the pandemic, but grossly inadequate in the face of decades of accumulated infrastructure deficits.
By the time districts (especially, but not only, those that serve poor communities) pay for devices for families, tutors for students, personal protective equipment for staff, reconfiguring spaces, ventilation workarounds, staff and contractors for testing and contact tracing, and other emerging needs, the money is spent.
How did it get so bad? When it comes to schools, too many poor communities sit downwind from decades of inequitable public policy. States grossly underinvest in the kind of proactive work anyone who owns a house knows is crucial – like replacing roofs, floors and pipes well before there is an emergency.
The result? Communities with higher tax bases either invest the money they collect or exert pressure to get this work done. Communities without a local tax base or access to the statehouse experience a compounding effect of dangerous decay, year over year. Districts in poor communities are forced to choose between things like buying textbooks or replacing a roof.
You might be inclined to blame states and local districts for failing to spend money wisely and think long term. Why should the federal government bail them out? But just as the federal government is stepping in to improve bridges, roads and communications infrastructure across the country, we need federal intervention now to bring schools up to modern safety standards. It’s unconscionable to send students to buildings with unhealthy air and water.
Can’t we all agree that our children are worthy of our investment? Can we agree that we want future generations to prosper, and we want our children and grandchildren to live fulfilling lives?
With trillions of dollars on the table, let’s bet on the next generation.
Cami Anderson is former superintendent of Newark Public Schools and Alternative High Schools in New York City. Sharon Contreras is the superintendent of Guilford County Schools in North Carolina. Janice Jackson is former CEO of Chicago Public Schools.
This previously ran in USA Today’s Opinion section on September 27, 2021