Commentary: Tax credits can work to modernize school buildings

On Nov. 21, 2016, Sen. Vince Hughes ( Center ) and other dignitaries enter Overbrook High School, a once-grand structure known as "the Castle on the Hill." The average city school is 70 years old, and the district is coping with years of deferred maintenance.

DR. MARTIN Luther King Jr. said truth crushed to Earth will rise. Recently, Philadelphia's school chief issued a facilities report. It showed the average student attends a school built in the year Brooklyn Dodgers great Jackie Robinson stunned a Yankee Stadium crowd by stealing home during Game 1 of the World Series.

That was 1955. This means our children go to the same aged, rundown K-12 facilities considered functionally obsolete by national standards a generation ago when their parents attended the same dilapidated buildings!

The report puts a price tag on fixing this intolerable situation: $5 billion.

Philly isn't alone. A 1995 federal survey showed the average K-12 facility across America to be similarly obsolete, based on the original construction date. Studies show students forced to attend these structures for their K-12 lifetime lose statistically one educational year.

Both parties promised bipartisan cooperation on a major infrastructure program. Candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton specifically said these investments must include modernizing school facilities.

In 2014, the federal government solicited proposals to modernize the Old Post Office located near the White House. It had been built in 1899 with public funds.

The winning bidder? Businessman Donald Trump. He used a financing approach authorized in a 1986 law championed by Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic House Speaker "Tip" O'Neill. Their bipartisan legislation gave "federal rehabilitation tax" credits to private investors equal to upward of 20 percent of the modernizing costs for aged structures deemed "historic" under federal law.

What became a five-star Trump hotel is one project. There have been tens of thousands. Studies by respected universities laud the law's cost-benefits in both the long and short term. But one building category has not benefited: local schools. Investors shun these project because they can't earn credits.

Why? George Allen, a former Republican senator from Virginia, first pointed out the "glitch" in 2009. The main culprit is called the "prior use" rule buried in Internal Revenue Service legalese that applies to government buildings built with public funds. Whereas the Trump project created a new building use, turning a dilapidated, old school into a modern K-12 facility maintains same building use. This complicated reasoning, explained Allen, effectively raised local school modernization costs in Virginia by nearly one-third or more.

Roughly 75 percent of Philly schools might qualify as "historic." Nationwide, it appears that two in five K-12 buildings are sufficiently aged to be in the same category. Potential savings for Philadelphia and other localities will depend on final legislation and its interconnection to applicable state law.

President Trump touted an infrastructure plan based on leveraging roughly $140 billion in private capital to get another $860 billion in private borrowing. He said the private capital could be attracted by offering those investors tax credits equal to 80 percent of their investment. He said the revenue produced by these projects will pay off the lenders.

Critics say it is pie in the sky for the transportation grid. But they have failed to consider public education infrastructure economics. A school modernization project can easily satisfy all the requirements in Trump's 80-percent tax credit infrastructure plan.

Trump says his plan would pay for itself in the long run. Additionally, a properly crafted local school modernization project will do that, too.

Modernized local schools can be simultaneously rehabilitated to accommodate adult learning and worker retraining. Every local dollar saved on construction could be put into classrooms without raising local taxes or borrowing. It's a double win!

Philadelphians aren't looking for a handout. No one begrudges Trump or any business for its creative use of the 1986 law or future infrastructure investments.

All my constituents want is a level playing field for school modernization projects. Philadelphians can take it from there.

Dwight Evans is a U.S. congressman representing Pennsylvania's 2nd Congressional District.