President Trump’s recent State of the Union address set forth a vision and agenda for America in the next year, highlighting key priorities for the administration and the Congress, including infrastructure.
Hopefully, Congress and the president understand that fixing the nation’s infrastructure deficit involves more than roads, bridges, highways, railways and waterways. It must include other essential community infrastructure, particularly public school buildings and their grounds—where nearly 55 million children and adults are every school day.
School facilities have a direct impact on the education, health, safety, and security of our nation’s students and teachers. Deteriorated school buildings and grounds with maintenance issues and legacy toxins, like lead and asbestos, detrimentally affect our children and teachers.
Trump recognized the importance of safe, healthy, and modern public school facilities throughout his 2016 campaign. On Election Night, he stated, “We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals.”
Nationally, local communities and states spent $49 billion a year on average from 1994 to 2013 to build and modernize public school facilities; but going forward, that’s $38 billion a year less than they need to provide our students with safe and healthy schools.
The people of Pennsylvania have been working hard to provide adequate public school facilities. Over the 20 years from 1994 to 2013, Pennsylvania school districts spent $42.3 billion—an average of $2.1 billion (in 2014 dollars) per year on school construction. But our school districts should be spending about $3.5 billion per year for capital investments to ensure that our school facilities meet modern education standards. We are short about $1.4 billion each year. Unfortunately, we already have the nation’s second highest level of local school district debt — more than $15,000 per student at the end of fiscal year 2015. This has real consequences for children and communities. Ask the family of the lead-poisoned child in Philadelphia, or the students and staff at Chester High School who lost school days because their heat was out during the cold snap.
But Pennsylvania — like other states — cannot keep up with the needs. Currently, there are no federal facilities funds for even the poorest school districts, or the schools in the worst condition. The only federal funds come in response to floods and other natural disasters.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Fortunately, bills have been introduced in the House and Senate that call for a $100 billion investment over 10 years. This would represent an important down payment on the nation’s $870 billion of capital construction needs and the projected $380 billion gap that public school facilities face over the next 10 years.
With aging schools and a growing need for school construction improvements, it’s time for a fair federal share.
Over the next 10 years, a $100 billion investment in public school facilities would translate into $4 billion of capital investment for Pennsylvania, which could support an estimated 73,260 new construction jobs. The control and responsibility would still be our own, but a fair federal share would have an immeasurably positive impact on our students, teachers, and communities.
The ability to do big and important work like this, which extends across boundaries and generations, is at the heart of what it means to be a nation.
We want gleaming roads and bridges, but we want them to take us to modern public schools. This truly is what will make America great again.
State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.) is the minority chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee; State Sen. James Brewster (D., Allegheny) is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Senate Education Committee; and State Rep. Joe Markosek (D., Allegheny) is the minority chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.