How will the Biden administration manage a public school facelift? Is $100 billion enough? Will communities see a windfall of funding dedicated to this purpose? Will corporate partnerships help? Will Americans see it as an equity issue?
Covid-19 showed Americans the importance of public schools, but they still might not understand the crumbling conditions found in many of those buildings. How many teachers and students face substandard classrooms?
Epidemiologists and pediatricians continue to speak about classroom mitigation strategies like they’re easy, while teachers frantically describe sealed windows or classrooms with no windows. Overcrowded classrooms make safe instruction unthinkable. Lousy HVAC systems in schools became a national disgrace.
America’s schools have been allowed to deteriorate for years. Even newer school buildings have depreciated due to deferred maintenance. Powerful people want students to prove they can do well on tests, but they don’t consider how the conditions of schools affect test-taking.
Recently, Chalkbeat described school building problems and the effects on learning; Biden eyes infrastructure, recent research suggests students’ environments affect academic success. Teachers know this.
It’s a good article, but it’s hard to get past that Chalkbeat’s sponsors are corporatists who don’t care about public education. If they did, they would have helped fix schools. Instead, they rallied and poured money into closing them, creating a competing system of charters.
The school building problem isn’t new. I wrote a book in 2013, dedicating a chapter to The School Building Problem and the effects on students. Schools exist on bad sites, near landfills and freeways, airports, military dumps, and farmlands sprayed with toxic chemicals. Some schools are near fracking sites.
Schools might have broken windows, unkempt lawns, garbage strewn about the school, lead in drinking water, radon gas, hot rooms, cold rooms, poor lighting, poor ventilation, rundown bathrooms, and more (p.130-131). Students might also be distracted by noise.
The chapter starts with a quote from the United States of America Congressional Record—Senate (p. 125).
In 1998, the American Society of Civil Engineers issued a report on our Nation’s infrastructure. The report found many problems with a lot of our infrastructure, but the most startling finding was with respect to our Nation’s public schools.
No data? Parents can’t sleep at night worrying about their child’s data footprint. How is it that this country can’t collect data about school building conditions?
Kozol’s Shame of the Nation
Apparently, it wasn’t startling enough. I’m not the best-known author, but certainly, American politicians know Jonathan Kozol, whose 2005, high profile book The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling In America stated these chilling child remarks about their classroom:
I saw a rat. It was a big fat rat. I saw the fat rat dead…There were nine rats in the classroom.
Ashley got sick because of dead rats, wrote another child.
Exposed asbestos and the presence of flaking chips of lead-based paint were serious problems, too (p.172).
Poor school facilities are an equity issue. Detroit schools were deemed so bad that a recent court case ruling about students not learning to read pointed at one factor being deplorable building conditions.
In a wealthy country, a country with schools that should shine amongst nations, how were school buildings allowed to decline so drastically?
Some schools are dangerous, situated on earthquake faults, without shelters in tornado alley, flood zones, and fire traps. Children try to learn in the heat without air conditioning or the cold without heat.
In 2018, from The New York Times, America’s Deathtrap Schools:
Young Americans are coming of age in a world that is drier and hotter than ever before. Wildfires, severe storms, floods, and other environmental extremes will become more frequent and intense. Natural hazards, when combined with crumbling infrastructure, can lead to disaster.
If we legally require children to attend school, then we should be held accountable for keeping them safe there. We need to see a real investment in our nation’s school infrastructure and emergency planning efforts.
The American Society of Civil Engineers assigned deteriorating school facilities a D+ in 2017. They estimate that just maintaining and operating schools will cost $58 billion annually. Upgrading would cost $77 billion annually.
In 2021, it’s still D+. We’re told: School facilities represent the second largest sector of public infrastructure spending, after highways, and yet there is no comprehensive national data source on K-12 public school infrastructure.
The Lead Pipe Issue
We’ve known for years about lead dangers to children, a major cause of learning disabilities. While it’s good President Biden wants to address fixing lead pipes finally, what took us so long?
Where’s the regulatory system when it comes to schools? Democratic public schools belong to all of us. Why haven’t Americans raised hell at school board meetings?
Why is there a disconnect between the public and the reality of school facilities attended by over 50 million of America’s kids?
Hope with Biden
President Obama proposed fixing schools, including Green Schools, with $25 billion in the Jobs Act. He set out to fix schools in South Carolina’s Corridor of Shame. Lack of cooperation with Congress didn’t help. President Obama finally got a new middle school for the children of Dillon, South Carolina, in the Corridor of Shame, but it wasn’t enough.
It seems like the time is right after what this country has been through this last year that President Biden might be the President to lift our public schools to new heights. There must be a focus on better, safer school buildings for America’s students, schools that engender pride from the students and their communities to do this. Schools for all children.
Bailey, N. (2013). Misguided Education Reform: Debating the Impact on Students. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Kozol, J. (2005). The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America. New York: Crown Publishers.
Peek, L. (2018, April 7). America’s Deathtrap Schools. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/07/opinion/sunday/americas-deathtrap-schools.html
Better cross your toes, too. We have spent 50 years ignoring upkeep of infrastructure in general. Even if we could figure out how to channel the resources to every school/district that is in need of assistance, how many years and how much money will it take? Our economic system is designed to dismantle any entity that can provide an immediate return. All the talk of stream-lining for efficiency is just a way of justifying selling off all the assets before declaring bankruptcy. Is it possible to provide more than a Band-Aid in the near term? As far as I can tell, there are no short term solutions. Are we capable of long term planning? Will we sabotage our own efforts because they don’t fulfill all our demands?
Nancy Bailey says
Yes. Thank you. I’ve not had any hopeful responses. Not much faith that things will turn around for buildings. And by the looks of the school I just drove by with about ten portables, I hear what you’re saying.
Rick B says
Air conditioning should be a high priority for schools, especially in light of the global warming scenario we are facing. It is not uncommon for classrooms temps to reach the 80s and even 90+ degree range. It should be considered child abuse. There isn’t any other group of professionals who would put up with the inhumane conditions found in countless classrooms across the country.
Nancy Bailey says
Thanks, Rick. Yes! Years ago I taught in a Florida school in August, no air conditioning, high humidity. It was awful. At least the windows opened and we had fans. The poor students. The school finally got air conditioning. But I’ve proctored tests in hot classrooms in spring too not long ago. There’s no way students can do their best in those conditions. So, yes, I agree.
Roy Turrentine says
And air circulation is vital for the maintenance of health. If we think it is good to used forced air ventilation in buildings, we better invest in the technology to keep that air clear of toxins and allergins. I bet the air in 95% of schools is out of compliance for healthy levels of both.
Nancy Bailey says
I’ve been in newer schools where I’ve questioned air quality including soot surrounding the ceiling intake vent. Deferred maintenance is a problem, and who’s checking on air quality? Truly problematic for students and staff with asthma related problems.
Nancy Bailey says
Excellent report with charts that show the problems in school buildings.
The Dismal State of School Infrastructure, in Charts by Mark Lieberman