Fix our schools, fix our workforce

Over the past two weeks, the Senate has held two votes on President Obama’s American Jobs Act. Both times, every Senate Republican voted to block a bill that would put more money in the pockets of middle-class families and keep hundreds of thousands of teachers in the classroom, instead of in unemployment lines. 

Our nation’s schools are facing the toughest fiscal pressures in our lifetime. The Department of Labor reports that nearly 200,000 educators have lost their jobs in the past 12 months, and the Council of Economic Advisers estimates another 280,000 are at risk of being laid off in the coming year. 


At the same time, our nation’s antiquated school buildings are facing an enormous $270 billion backlog of deferred maintenance. School boards are skipping basic repairs because they don’t have the funds to invest in modernizing their schools.

In the American Jobs Act, the president proposes to invest $30 billion to repair and modernize public schools and community colleges, putting hundreds of thousands of unemployed construction workers, engineers, boiler repairmen and electrical workers back to work. He also proposes an additional $30 billion to keep hundreds of thousands of educators facing potential layoffs and furloughs on the job.

Modernizing and repairing our schools is a classic win-win solution. It benefits everyone — children, communities and construction workers who need work.

Tragically, children in the nation’s poorest school districts often attend schools with crumbling ceilings, overcrowded classrooms and facilities that lack modern wiring for computers and other new technologies. That’s no way to provide a world-class education — and in this global economy, a country that out-educates America today will out-compete us tomorrow.

The president’s jobs bill would modernize at least 35,000 schools, or about 1 out of every 3 public schools in the United States. The construction funding could create as many as 400,000 jobs in the construction trades nationwide.

Over the past month-and-a-half, Obama has visited several schools in desperate need of modernization. At Abraham Lincoln High School in Denver, some of the science labs lack sinks — and the school has had only minor plumbing renovation since it opened 51 years ago. He knows that in other schools roofs are leaking, ceiling tiles are caving in and heating and air-conditioning systems are unreliable. 

Every child deserves a great school. This is not a partisan issue. The physical conditions at some aging schools today are unacceptable. They are no place for children to learn.

Nationwide, $25 billion would go to upgrading existing public school facilities under the American Jobs Act (including charter schools), with $5 billion invested in modernizing community colleges. It is important to emphasize that the federal government will not fund new construction — or pick the schools to modernize. Those decisions will be left entirely to states and districts with knowledge of local needs.

Modernization could put a small army of Americans back to work rebuilding and upgrading our schools. If we fail to act, looming teacher layoffs could have a devastating impact in the classroom.

As the bar for educational success rises worldwide in the knowledge economy, this is no time to be laying off scores of teachers and early childhood educators or cutting programs essential to a well-rounded education.

Already, financially pinched school districts are reducing class time, shortening the school calendar, cutting after-school programs and early childhood education and reducing top-notch arts and music instruction.

Obama recently shared the story of Jason Chuong, a Philadelphia music teacher who uses plastic buckets to teach his students to play percussion — because he only has a $100 out-of-pocket budget to cover music instruction at seven schools.

The American Jobs Act will give school districts relief so they can maintain their programs, keep teachers in the classroom and provide such teachers as Chuong with the support they need to succeed. 

The path to prosperity, the way to win the future, is to invest wisely in schools, remembering that children get only one chance at an education.

In the coming weeks, Congress will have more opportunities to vote on sections of the American Jobs Act. The president’s plan to modernize our schools for the 21st century and minimize teacher layoffs is the right plan, at the right time. This is an investment that will yield jobs today — and prepare our children for the jobs of tomorrow.

Duncan is the secretary of Education.