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America’s schools are essential public infrastructure

America’s schools are essential public infrastructure
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A recent report noting that the Trump administration is giving up on public-private partnerships as the centerpiece of its infrastructure proposals offers the Congress and the administration an opportunity to rethink national infrastructure needs.

It is my belief that the nation’s 100,000 public schools should be seen as essential public infrastructure. America’s public schools are the nation’s second-largest public infrastructure investment after highways and bridges and the majority of our nation’s public schools are now reaching the end of their 40 to 50-year life cycle.

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The multipurpose use of these facilities in terms of education, community use and election sites suggest that these facilities are at the center of every community. The hurricanes and flooding in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands are also a reminder about their value as emergency shelters and the need to design and locate new school facilities in these areas as resilient buildings that can offer shelter in times of national emergency. This is especially true with scientists calling for more extreme weather events in the decades ahead.

 

America’s public school facilities historically have been constructed and financed using local property taxes and in some states, with help from the state government. But it’s hard to maintain much less build new 21st century schools without an adequate property tax base — a problem across much of rural and urban America, where a history of inequity in low-wealth rural and urban communities means children often go to schools that are unhealthy, unsafe and educationally obsolete schools. Some school districts in Texas may now face the stark reality that their property tax-base has been washed away in the flooding and maybe for years to come. What to do?

In the next 10 years the nation’s school districts and states will need $870 billion dollars to maintain existing school facilities and to build new ones to meet rising enrollment. If school districts and states spend at the same rate as the last 20 years school facility experts project $490 billion in capital investment leaving a gap of $380 billion. Closing this investment gap must be a national infrastructure priority.

If the Congress sets aside just 10 percent of its $1 trillion federal infrastructure investment for public schools over the next ten years while maintaining local control of facility design and construction — states and districts could leverage another $280 billion in additional public and private funds. Building new schools can be done quickly and is labor intensive. As a result an additional 170,000 local jobs would be created annually.

Traditional and charter schools would both benefit from such an infrastructure package as would rural America. Rural America is dotted with historic old schools but what rural America needs is capital investment dollars to connect rural schools to the nation's broadband infrastructure network.

Installing Wi-Fi in rural school buses that travel hundreds of miles every day is the type of specific investment that would make a huge difference in educating children in rural America.

Over 90 percent of this nation’s children go to America’s public schools. This is a big fact that members of Congress would do well to remember. These facilities are core community assets used every day by over 55 million Americans during the school year. If the White House and congressional Republicans want a legislative victory, they would be smart to put forward a bipartisan infrastructure bill that includes public schools. Democrats in the House and the Senate have already introduced legislation to provide $100 billion in direct grants and school construction bonds over 10 years. So a proposal that’s good for America’s children and communities is on the table.

During the last year’s presidential campaign the president made his $1 trillion infrastructure proposal a centerpiece of his campaign and included schools in his stump speeches. So I hope that the president will keep this campaign promise. If the White House wants a real legislative win next year it should include public schools in any infrastructure proposal that it sends to Congress. Our entire country, especially America’s school children, would benefit from a win like that.

Richard W. Riley is the former U.S. Secretary of Education (1993-2000) under President Clinton.