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It’s Joe Manchin vs the progressives on infrastructure

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)
Greg Nash

Castigating moderate Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) on his infrastructure stance is now a liberal litmus test. Education advocates are rightly outraged at the decrepit condition of public-school infrastructure. But instead of criticizing him, they might want to learn a hard truth from the senator, who knows how to use his one vote to protect his constituents. The case for public-school infrastructure is clear, but what is not is whether any progressive legislators are willing to fight like Joe.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark decision on infrastructure. The justices found that, unlike airports, border walls, bridges, interstate highways, main thoroughfares, railroads, tunnels, etc., public school infrastructure is covered by the equal rights protections in the 14th amendment to the Constitution.

The famed 1954 Brown v Board of Education of Topeka decision, and the Brown II follow-up ruling a year later, involved appeals from several cases, not merely the titled action. One forgotten case came from President Biden’s home state. The plaintiffs were Black public-school students. Delaware’s high court had ruled that equal educational rights could be violated due to the decrepit condition of school facilities. The Supreme Court agreed. Brown II specifically said decrepit public-school facilities could alone deny the right to equal educational opportunities irrespective of any other educational spending. 

Regrettably, the infrastructure aspect of Brown II has faded from contemporary discussion. Forty years later, President Clinton famously told Congress, “we cannot expect our children to raise themselves up in schools that are literally falling down.” A generation later, the age and decrepit dysfunction of the average school facility is worse.   

“Education is the great equalizer,” declared Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But in 1956, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower and a Democratic Congress were only interested in passing the Federal Highway Act promising “41,000 miles of interstate highways.” The federal government would pay 90 percent of the cost.     

Today, there are upwards of 41,000 aging school facilities needing full or nearly complete renovation. As the 2020 Democratic Platform suggests, crumbling facilities are disproportionately found in minority urban neighborhoods and white rural counties.

Congressional infrastructure advocates are promising to “modernize 20,000 miles of highways,” “repair the worst 10,000 smaller bridges” and subsidize “500,000 EV stations,” among other specified numerical targets. They reference “$100 billion to upgrade and build new public schools” but pointedly avoid any claim to fully renovate a specific number of decrepit school facilities. Why?    

Approximately 20 million school children attend the most decrepit, dysfunctional school facilities. Dividing this number into the $100 billion comes out to $5,000 per-child for infrastructure, assuming no money goes to schools serving the other 30 million.

There are roughly 10,000 West Virginia coal miners, and 33,000 nationwide. Democrats are targeting “$38 billion to the coal sector” to achieve a more eco-friendly infrastructure grid. That equates to $1.1 million per coal miner. 

The sacrifices of coal miners fueled our industrial revolution. They volunteered to save democracy from the Nazi threat. Most of the $38 billion will, of course, not go to them. But Joe Manchin is at least playing hard ball to help his 10,000 constituents get job training and a transition to non-coal economy employment.   

Take Richmond, Virginia. Modernizing an elementary school costs $20 million, $40 million for a middle school. A recently built high school cost over $100 million. In a recent column, columnist Nicholas Kristoff writes that it took only $530,000 in current dollars to provide his hometown with a needed high school during the Great Depression. That wouldn’t be enough to renovate the gym in most schools today. 

After decades of broken school infrastructure promises, Manchin-style 2021 hardball may be required, not New Deal nostalgia. Imagine what Manchin could do if he had 20 million coal miners as leverage?

The West Virginia case highlights a most enduring political truth: It is not the size of the dog in the fight that matters, but rather the size of the fight in the dog.  

Paul Goldman, former chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia, is a Richmond, Virginia attorney. Mark J. Rozell is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and co-author (with Clyde Wilcox) of “Federalism: A Very Short Introduction” (Oxford University Press, 2019).

Tags Coal mining Infrastructure Joe Biden Joe Manchin New Deal West Virginia

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