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Students deserve better than to be left out of the infrastructure spending package

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PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images
A child attends an online class at a learning hub inside the Crenshaw Family YMCA during the Covid-19 pandemic on February 17, 2021 in Los Angeles, California.

Access to an equal and adequate education must include physical conditions that are conducive to learning and do not threaten basic health. This is a critical, longstanding racial justice problem. Congress’s infrastructure deal provides funds for many issues facing our nation, but it fails to address a glaringly urgent matter: national funding for school infrastructure. 

The lack of dedicated federal funding for school capital needs has perilously impacted the education and welfare of our nation’s children, particularly students of color and low-income students, some of whom attend school in unsafe facilities with diminished learning opportunities. When our legislators return from recess and move toward budget reconciliation, they must take serious measures to correct this dire problem before our children endure even more negative consequences.

Over the years, school infrastructure problems have multiplied, especially in school districts that primarily serve Black students. In Baltimore, where about 76 percent of public school enrollment is Black, schools have closed because of unsafe building temperatures, both extreme heat and freezing conditions. In 2016, more than 85 of Detroit’s approximately 100 schools were closed because a teacher-led protest raised concerns about schools with rodents, roaches, mold, holes in walls and ceilings, and an unstable heating system. Two years later, the district was forced to shut off drinking water at its schools — where more than 80 percent of students are Black — when elevated levels of lead or copper were discovered in two-thirds of tested school buildings. And a 2020 report on the nearly all-Black schools in the Mississippi Delta describes buildings with inadequate plumbing, flooded hallways and crumbling walls, floors and ceilings.

Black students, parents and the civil rights community have fought for decades to illuminate the impact of racial discrimination on school facilities and educational attainment. In 1948, former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, founder of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), and the NAACP challenged a Texas school district’s effort to relegate Black students to be educated in former German war barracks, emphasizing that the conditions were unsafe and unhygienic. The LDF argued that a grossly inferior high school facility for Black children denied them the equal protection under the law guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. And, in 1951, Barbara Johns led a student strike in Prince Edward County, Va., to protest the poor conditions at its all-Black public high school, declaring, “We are tired of tar paper shacks.” She would go on to become a plaintiff in LDF’s historic Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation litigation. 

Nearly 70 years after Brown, many Black students still attend highly segregated public schools characterized by unsafe conditions that are not conducive to learning — and sometimes threaten students’ physical and cognitive development. Persistent educational segregation, the connection between race and economic discrimination, and schools’ reliance on property taxes for funding can translate into stark racial disparities in school resources. 

Many schools — and disproportionately those serving Black students — have high poverty concentrations among students and an accompanying lack of resources, including resources for capital improvements or construction, as well as a decades-old legacy of disinvestment to overcome. As of 2017, 55 percent of Black primary students in the United States were in high-poverty schools, and 26 percent were in mid-high poverty schools. This kind of school poverty concentration means a lack of local resources to provide for school capital needs.

Moreover, federal data on school facilities illuminate a chronic underinvestment in Black children’s education. One study found that 60 percent of high-poverty schools and 52 percent of mid-high poverty schools are in fair or poor condition, which indicates the buildings have issues with air quality, temperature control, water safety or similar matters. Schools in predominantly Black communities are more likely to be located in areas where there are adverse neighborhood-level health conditions, such as waste transfer sites or highway exposure impacting air quality, because of discriminatory environmental and land use practices. The lack of investment in America’s school facilities poses serious threats to the health of students and educators and imperils the ability to learn and thrive. 

Despite this reality, there is no federal program that fills the funding gap for low-income schools by providing resources specifically for school physical infrastructure rather than operating costs. Legislators should view the budget reconciliation process for the infrastructure package as a long overdue opportunity to address this critical matter and provide $100 billion for school facilities targeted to reach the schools and students that need it most, as recommended by the Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act

All students — particularly those of color who disproportionately endure the consequences of school infrastructure underfunding — deserve safe and healthy learning environments. Anything less is unacceptable, unjust and an affront to the civil rights of students across this nation.

Hamida Labi is policy counsel and Megan Haberle is senior policy counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc.  

Tags Biden infrastructure Brown v. Board of Education Education reform NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund

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