Don’t forget about the physical infrastructure of America’s K-12 schools

The American rescue plan provides historic federal investment at a pivotal time for U.S. K-12 public schools. The funds provide essential support to clients as they face a series of pressing challenges: expanding learning opportunities for the summer, implement academic recovery interventions and addressing a wide range of students mental health needs. But to unleash the plan’s vast potential and fully maximize student learning, Congress must also address a problem that predated the pandemic: aging and crumbling K-12 facilities due to decades of underinvestment. As infrastructure negotiations continue, we are pushing for the drawdown of $100 billion in direct grants and $30 billion in bonds for K-12 public school facilities — in line with the Reopening and Rebuilding America’s Schools Act.

The neglect of K-12 school infrastructure is hampering tens of thousands of schools across the country, posing significant health and safety risks to millions of students. According to the Report on the state of our schools 2016, state and local governments fund K-12 facilities at $46 billion annually. A recent Investigation by the Government Accountability Office paints a disturbing picture: In about a quarter of all school districts, at least half of their schools required upgrades or replacements of key building systems, such as heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, plumbing, wiring or windows. The survey also found that 41 percent of districts need to update or replace HVAC systems in at least half of their schools. A leaking roof or HVAC system can cause water damage, exposing students and staff to mold or asbestos.

We remain deeply concerned about the disproportionate impact the divestment of school facilities is having on low-income school districts. Without a robust local tax base, these districts face significant backlogs and delayed maintenance of their building systems. As a result, millions of students attend school in buildings in need of major repairs and upgrades, creating unsafe conditions that undermine student and teacher performance. By prioritizing school facilities, Congress and Biden’s administration would be strongly committed to equality.

Boosting the K-12 school infrastructure should be seen as a complement to the funding of the US bailout plan and at the heart of the rehabilitation work already underway in schools. While funds from the American Rescue Plan are mobilized to support academic recovery efforts — such as intensive tutoring, accelerated learning programs, and summer education and enrichment — and to address students’ mental health issues, these are just parts of a larger student support puzzle. Our members work hard to raise the plan’s funds to meet these needs, but to thrive, students also need safe and healthy learning environments. By investing in elementary education infrastructure, Congress can help usher American school buildings into the 21st century, set a new course for elementary education and help schools emerge from this difficult period even stronger.

dr. L. Earl Franks, CAE, is an experienced association board member and public education and school leadership advocate with more than three decades of experience in early childhood education.

Ronn Nozoe is a lifelong educator with significant experience in policy development at the state and federal levels. In his home state of Hawaii, he has served as deputy state superintendent, district superintendent, principal, vice principal, and teacher.

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