In the jobs bill President Obama sent to Congress on Monday, he proposes using federal funds to repair 35,000 schools nationwide.
Now, we must hope Congress embraces the idea, which has the potential to create jobs, spruce up decrepit school buildings and inject money into stagnating local economies.
As Los Angeles has shown, school renovation is labor intensive: It creates more jobs per dollar spent than many other kinds of public works projects. According to the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., each $50 million spent by the Los Angeles Unified School District on school renovations during its recent push to build and upgrade schools created 935 annual jobs, which paid $43 million in wages and generated $130 million in Southern California business revenue.
In the Los Angeles area, school bonds have financed 111 new campuses and modernized hundreds more since 2001, which enabled the district to alleviate extreme overcrowding. But there is much more that needs to be done. L.A. Unified has more than 13,000 buildings serving about 670,000 students. Half of the structures are at least 50 years old and many are much older, and they need attention.
To keep teachers in classrooms during a time of shrinking revenue, the district has made major cuts in its maintenance and operations budget. Also, because of the fiscal crisis, the state has relaxed rules that forced schools to set aside funds for building upkeep. But without needed maintenance, school buildings deteriorate more rapidly, which will lead to higher repair costs in the future.
Schools nationwide are suffering from a massive backlog of leaky roofs and windows, clogged and rusted pipes, inadequate wiring, inefficient heating and air-conditioning systems, and neglected playgrounds. As in California, school districts have slashed building maintenance to avoid cutting teachers.
Do bricks and mortar affect how kids learn? Of course. Nearly two dozen studies recently collected by the 21st Century School Fund document the impact on achievement and attendance. Depressing surroundings lower student and teacher morale. Upgrading buildings reduces noise and improves health and learning.
As the president put it to Congress last week, "How can we expect our kids to do their best in places that are literally falling apart?"
Obama's plan would distribute $25 billion to K-12 schools, not just for fixing roofs and removing asbestos but for installing new science and computer labs.
One plus of a national school modernization program is that it would not foster a new bureaucracy. The federal government already distributes money to most of the nation's school districts. The disbursements could simply be added to amounts already being distributed and thus could be quickly deployed.
Under the White House plan, the money would be sent to states according to their needs, and the country's largest 100 districts, including L.A. Unified, would get direct grants.
Besides improving how kids learn and putting people to work, repairing school buildings would allow school districts to save energy by installing better insulation and more efficient heating and cooling systems. That would cut costs, at a time of rising oil and electricity prices, and contribute to the greening of Los Angeles.
Can the U.S. afford such a program? Certainly — if we rearrange our priorities. If Congress were to put improving schools and adding jobs ahead of tax breaks to hedge-fund managers and subsidies to the oil and gas industries, a national school renovation effort wouldn't boost the deficit.
It is high time, as the president pointed out, to decide whether our kids are more important than tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires.
The economy needs more jobs now, and it needs a well-educated workforce for the future. A national school repair program shouldn't be hard to sell.
Steve English is co-director of the Advancement Project, a nonprofit organization based in Los Angeles and Washington. He is also vice chairman of the LAUSD Citizens' Bond Oversight Committee (but does not speak here for that committee). Mary Filardo is executive director of the 21st Century School Fund.