The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Too many of America’s public schools are crumbling — literally. Here’s one plan to fix them.

A hole in an exterior wall of Farwell Middle School in Detroit in 2010. Mice were entering through the hole. (Jeffrey Sauger/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Every school day, some 50 million students and 6 million adults go to nearly 100,000 public schools across the country, amounting to about 1 in 6 Americans. Too many of them enter buildings that are crumbling — literally — and that suffer from problems, including poor air and water quality, mold, broken toilets and rodents.

Yet while research has shown that high-quality facilities have a positive effect on student achievement, and staff and teacher retention and student truancy rates, districts defer costs year after year. According to the National Council on School Facilities, the nation’s PK-12 public school buildings are valued collectively at nearly $2 trillion, and the deferred investment in upkeep is estimated to be between $271 billion and $542 billion. That’s more than a 2014 government report estimated.

To be sure, billions have been spent in the past 25 years to improve schools. A 2016 report issued by the council, the 21st Century School Fund and the Center for Green Schools found that from 1994 to 2013, school districts “worked hard” to “operate, maintain, modernize, and meet the enrollment growth of the nation’s K–12 public schools.” States and districts collectively spent $925 billion in 2014 dollars on maintenance and operations: daily cleaning, groundskeeping, maintenance, utilities and security of facilities. And states and districts invested $973 billion (in 2014 dollars) from capital budgets for new school construction and capital projects to improve existing schools.

But the way schools are funded in this country, that report said, “is inherently and persistently inequitable.” The federal and state governments contribute to the operation of district schools, but local revenue provide much of it — and those are based on property taxes, meaning that wealthier communities have more to spend. State and federal funding doesn’t make up for the difference.

President Trump has talked about rebuilding the nation’s sagging infrastructure, but it is anything but clear what such a program would look like, and whether schools would be part of it.

This post looks at the problem and discusses a solution. It was written by Michael Addonizio, a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Wayne State University and a member of Wayne State’s Kaplan Collaborative for Urban Education. He served as assistant Michigan state superintendent for research and policy, and is an expert in education economics and public school finance. Addonizio has a master’s of public policy degree from the University of Michigan and a PhD in economics from Michigan State University.

This first appeared on the Conversation website, and The Washington Post was given permission to publish it.

By Michael Addonizio

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 $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 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 the judge 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 Government Accountability 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 American Civil Liberties Union 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. Robert C. “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.