September 1, 2011

President Obama plans to announce a jobs package next week. For those of us angered by Washington’s recent predilection for self-inflicted economic wounds, this is very good news.

But as always, the devil is in the details. Especially in a climate where both political and popular forces are skeptical of the government’s ability to help on the jobs front, the plan needs to be crafted to resonate with the public and to get a strong bang for the buck.

That’s where FAST! comes in. Fix America’s Schools Today is a proposal — from the 21st Century School Fund, the Economic Policy Institute and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities — to address the backlog of repairs at the nation’s 100,000 public schools. It’s an idea that efficiently marries big problems to a big solution.

One big problem is that most school districts in our country have been deferring maintenance and repairs for years. The has led to inefficient, and thus expensive, energy use, unsafe drinking water, mold, poor air quality, inadequate fire safety systems and structural dangers. With local governments hammered by the recession, school districts do not have the resources to address this backlog, nor will they for many years to come.

The other big problem is that after the housing bust, employment opportunities crashed for construction workers. So far this year, their unemployment rate has averaged 18 percent.

An efficient and common-sense solution is a government infrastructure program to put many of these workers back on the job fixing our nations’ schools.

There’s a lot to recommend FAST. First, the resources can be quickly distributed through formulas that Congress already uses. All 16,000 school districts receive funds under “Title I” programs. FAST could be set up to ensure that within a month of enactment, every state and a hundred of the local education systems with the greatest needs would get funding. Any school district with a roof to insulate and repair, for example, could begin work before the end of the year.

The rest of the districts could apply, and recipients would be chosen based on need, along with estimates of jobs created and energy savings generated.

Another reason the president should consider this his top priority for improving infrastructure and putting America back to work is that FAST is more labor-intensive than road and bridge construction. One lesson of the 2009 Recovery Act is that roadwork has become more capital-intensive. Right now, we need jobs for people, not machines. The work that FAST would enable — insulating buildings; fixing or replacing windows, roofs and HVAC systems; and implementing green measures, such as adding solar panels or wind generators — is still highly labor-intensive.

Given the depth of the backlog, FAST is scalable. Although the full cost of needed repairs is in the hundreds of billions, we propose a $50 billion program that would create about half a million jobs. To avoid adding to the deficit and to complement the energy-efficiency theme of the repairs, the cost of the program could be fully offset by closing loopholes that benefit the oil and gas industries, such as an $18 billion tax break for manufacturers that somehow goes to oil and gas extractors, too, or an $11 billion tax break on the depletion of oil or natural gas fields that extraction companies get well before depletion, and one that keeps giving even after the full costs of the properties have been deducted.

As its name suggests, FAST could quickly get to work fixing a vital but dangerously ignored American institution, while putting hundreds of thousands back to work and providing students with better learning environments.

Such an initiative also conveys an important message to our children. It’s hard for them to square the message that we, their parents, are concerned about and committed to their educational success when we send them off to schools that are in ill-repair or even unsafe.

FAST should be at the top of the president’s jobs agenda next week.

Jared Bernstein, chief economist and economic adviser to the vice president from January 2009 to May 2011, is a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He blogs at jaredbernsteinblog.com. Mary Filardo is executive director of the 21st Century School Fund. Ross Eisenbrey is vice president of the Economic Policy Institute.

Jared Bernstein, a former chief economist to Vice President Biden, is a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and author of “Crunch: Why Do I Feel So Squeezed?” among other books.