It's time to fix our nation's public-school buildings

It's time to fix our nation's public-school buildings
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More than 50 million children and 6 million adults — one in six Americans — set foot in a school each weekday. Schools are not only where our children are educated, they are the heart of our communities — hosting countless community events every week; serving as emergency shelters; and where meals, aftercare and health care are provided to millions of children. Our nation’s public schools are the second largest national infrastructure sector for capital investment. Yet, historically, unlike roads and bridges, school facilities have received virtually no federal investment.

The result? Our school buildings are in as bad or worse shape as our roads and bridges. Nearly half of the nation’s schools are 50 years old. At best, they lack the technological updates required to meet 21st-century educational needs. At worst, they expose our students, teachers and staff to mold, lead and asbestos. The American Society of Civil Engineers has given the condition of our nation’s schools a D+. One-third of our nation’s school buildings require updates or replacement. Not surprisingly, the schools in the worst condition are concentrated in lower-wealth communities, particularly in our rural and inner-city areas. As leaders of national associations representing principals and parents, we have seen firsthand and heard many stories of the deplorable conditions inside some of our nation’s school buildings. 

These inequities cannot be addressed without federal support. After a thorough analysis of spending on maintenance, operations and facilities replacement, the 21st Century School Fund and its partners concluded in their State of Our Schools report that lower-wealth jurisdictions cannot afford to meet the growing financial need on their own. Local jurisdictions — with some state help but essentially no federal contribution — have invested an average of $99 billion annually. As a result, local school districts now carry $434 billion — that’s billions — of debt. But they’re still at least $46 billion short of the annual investments needed to maintain and modernize the infrastructure they currently have.

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Research also shows that high-quality facilities help improve academic achievement, reduce student and staff absences, and reduce suspensions. Yet, despite the positive effects of adequate facilities, far too many children and adults are in schools that are unsafe and unhealthy. Without federal investment, inequities will only grow, and many school districts will inevitably be left behind both financially and academically. 

The good news is that we have an opportunity to do better. In his 2019 State of the Union address, President TrumpDonald John TrumpGraham: America must 'accept the pain that comes in standing up to China' Weld 'thrilled' more Republicans are challenging Trump New data challenges Trump's economic narrative MORE called for a bipartisan effort to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure and expressed his eagerness to work with Congress on legislation to deliver new and important infrastructure investment. Congress is also eager to pass an infrastructure bill. In fact, at the end of April, congressional leaders and the White House discussed investing $2 trillion to revitalize the nation’s infrastructure. As an infrastructure package is considered, public schools must be included in this. Schools are a critical part of our nation’s infrastructure and it is essential that investments are made to repair, renovate and modernize school facilities to ensure they are well-equipped to advance student achievement and are safe and healthy spaces for students and everyone who sets foot in their doors.  

If there is one investment that is guaranteed to pay dividends in the long run, it is an investment in our nation’s school buildings as this is an investment in our nation’s children, America’s competitiveness in the global economy and the future of our country. It is time for Congress and the president to step up and make this investment. 

JoAnn Bartoletti is the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Nathan R. Monell, CAE, is the executive director of the National Parent Teacher Association.