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America's schools are crumbling – what will it take to fix them?

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When I was asked to support a federal lawsuit that says Detroit’s deteriorating schools were having a negative impact on students’ ability to learn, the decision was a no-brainer.

Detroit’s schools are so old and raggedy that last year the city’s schools chief, Nikolai Vitti, ordered the water shut off across the district due to lead and copper risks from antiquated plumbing. By mid-September, elevated levels of copper and lead were confirmed in 57 of 86 schools tested.

Safe water isn’t the only problem in Detroit schools. A 2018 assessment found that it would cost about US$500 million to bring Detroit’s schools into a state of repair – a figure that could grow to $1.4 billion if the school district waits another five years to address the problems. A school board official concluded that the district would have to “pick and choose” which repairs to make because there isn’t enough money to make them all.

Even though a federal judge tossed out the lawsuit that I supported, the judge recognized how the deteriorating state of Detroit’s schools impact student learning. The central argument of the lawsuit is that children have a constitutional right to literacy, and that the state was violating that right by failing to provide enough resources for Detroit’s school system.

“The conditions and outcomes of Plaintiffs’ schools, as alleged, are nothing short of devastating,” U.S. District Court Judge Stephen J. Murphy III wrote. “When a child who could be taught to read goes untaught, the child suffers a lasting injury – and so does society.”

But Judge Murphy found that the “deplorable and unsafe conditions” that deny children access to literacy were not shown to stem from “irrational” decisions of the State. The case has been appealed to the U.S. 6th Circuit.

A nationwide problem

Detroit’s dilemma is not unique.

Before I became a professor of educational leadership and policy, I served as assistant state superintendent for research and policy in the Michigan Department of Education. I know a thing or two about how poor school facilities can have an effect on student learning. One recent study, for instance, found that in schools without air conditioning, for every one Fahrenheit degree increase in school year temperature, the amount learned that year goes down by 1 percent.

Crumbling schools can be found throughout the nation. These schools are disproportionately attended by low-income children of color. And it’s been that way for a while. For instance, a 1996 report by the General Accounting Office found that schools in “unsatisfactory physical and environmental condition” were “concentrated in central cities and serve large populations of poor or minority students.”

A 2014 Department of Education study found that it would cost about $197 billion to bring the nation’s deteriorating public schools into good condition.

The harshness of the conditions that have plagued the nation’s schools was captured in a case known as Williams v. California, a class action lawsuit that the ACLU filed in 2000 on behalf of California’s low-income students of color.

“The school has no air conditioning. On hot days classroom temperatures climb into the 90s,” the lawsuit stated in reference to the grim conditions at Luther Burbank middle school in San Francisco. “The school heating system does not work well. In winter, children often wear coats, hats, and gloves during class to keep warm.”

A similar situation happened in Baltimore’s public schools in January 2018, when the city’s schools were closed after parents and educators complained that students were being exposed to frigid conditions that the local teachers union described as “inhumane.”

A few years ago in the Yazoo County School District in Mississippi, the lights were so old at the high school that maintenance workers couldn’t find replacement bulbs when the lights went out.

In Philadelphia, the head of the teachers union recently described the current state of the city’s schools as “untenable.”

“From flaking lead paint, asbestos exposure, persistent rodent issues, the presence of mold, and even the lack of heat on bitterly cold days, educators and children in Philadelphia are learning and working in environmentally toxic facilities every day,” Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, wrote in a January op-ed.

Costs and consequences

Indeed, miserable conditions like these are not only hard on the children. They seriously impair school districts’ ability to retain their most valuable asset – their teachers. Teachers leave their jobs for a variety of reasons, but facility quality is a key factor.

Addressing the infrastructure needs of America’s public schools will be costly. However, continuing to ignore them would be even more costly. The educational impact of substandard facilities on students cannot be overstated. For example, at one elementary school in the Detroit “right to literacy” case that I supported, not a single sixth-grade student could read at a minimally proficient level. Perhaps poor facilities can’t be blamed entirely for the low reading ability at this particular school – but those conditions are still a potential factor.

Who should pay for it?

Funding for public education, including school facilities, is primarily a state and local matter. But while most states have tried to help poor local districts with basic operating expenses – such as paying teachers and buying supplies and materials – state support for school infrastructure has been much less reliable.

Local districts vary widely – usually along lines of race – in their ability to build or renovate schools. Property-poor districts, including most big city districts, are left behind.

Congress now has an opportunity to address this problem. The House has begun hearings on the Rebuild America’s School Act of 2019. Introduced by U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, a Democrat from Virginia, the bill would invest $100 billion over 10 years in fixing America’s public schools.

Even for people who aren’t convinced that federal money should be spent on fixing America’s schools, there are other factors to consider when weighing the merits of the bill. For instance, the bill would create nearly 1.9 million jobs. This figure is based on an analysis that found 17,785 jobs are created for each $1 billion spent on construction. The estimate factors in an overall $107 billion investment when state and local resources are taken into account.

The $100 billion investment would also stimulate property values in communities where schools would be fixed. For all those reasons and more, passage of this bill should be a no-brainer.

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