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Our schools are in poor condition. Here’s how to give kids a better learning environment

6/24/2021 | John B. King


On America’s Infrastructure Report Card, our school buildings received a D-plus, indicating they are in poor and at-risk condition.

With nearly 100,000 schools across the country on about 2 million acres of land, one in every six Americans in a typical year relies on our school buildings and grounds for learning, work and wellbeing.

As debates about America’s infrastructure continue, Congress and the Biden administration must include our schools in this critical investment not only because of their scale, use and condition, but also because this investment can benefit our economy, build community resilience, and improve the environmental and fiscal sustainability of our schools.

The underinvestment in school buildings and campuses, estimated at about $46 billion annually, has resulted in poor indoor air quality, leaky roofs and unaddressed environmental hazards. The Government Accountability Office found nearly half of all districts need to replace one or more major building systems.


Poor air quality hurts students

The poor physical condition of our schools directly affects students’ health and learning. Before the pandemic, childhood asthma, linked to exposure to poor air quality, resulted in about 13.8 million missed days of school annually. Researchers also have found that high temperatures in classrooms without sufficient cooling systems hurt student learning and performance.

With school districts often having to use local taxes to pay for maintenance and improvements, schools in lower-income communities are in worse condition, meaning students of color and low-income students are hit hardest by the poor physical conditions of our schools.

Just as roads and bridges are essential for our economy, sustainable schools also are critical. Since the start of the pandemic, school closures have prevented parents from working, and mothers in particular have disproportionately left the workforce due to increased responsibilities for childcare at home. The poor condition of school buildings has made the reopening of schools more difficult in particular in under-resourced communities.

It is critical to realize that any disruptions to schooling hurts women’s ability to participate and excel in the workforce. Before the pandemic and this summer, school disruptions due to excessive heat have increasingly occurred across the country. These disruptions are likely to accelerate as climate change worsens.

Infrastructure investments can help reduce the impact of heat on schools and help build community resilience. In addition to improved heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, school infrastructure investments can be used to transition heat-trapping impermeable asphalt in schoolyards to green permeable schoolyards.

 This transition can reduce excessive heat and flooding in the surrounding community. In Chicago, for example, the city acknowledged the untapped potential of school grounds to help meet community infrastructure needs, including storm water management, by expanding access to green schoolyards.


Green energy can save schools money

Including schools in an infrastructure package can also help schools reap the environmental and economic benefits of renewable energy. Energy is the second highest cost for schools behind salaries, but schools across the country are now using solar, geothermal and other renewable energy sources to reduce expenses.

Batesville School District in Arkansas, for instance, decided to install solar on some schools. This investment has helped the district move from a budget deficit to a surplus and enabled administrators to shift money previously spent on energy to increased teacher pay. But only about 5% of schools now use solar energy, which means there’s ample room for growth.

The American Jobs Plan has proposed critical federal support for improving the physical infrastructure of our schools. Additionally, the Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act introduced by Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Senator Jack Reed, D-R.I., shows how a federal school infrastructure program can work. That legislation is projected to create 2 million good-paying construction jobs.

Yet, Republican counter proposals and the current bipartisan proposal make no mention of schools, and the status of schools in ongoing negotiations remains unclear.

As the debate continues, schools should remain a pillar of the infrastructure package. The physical needs of our school buildings and grounds are substantial, the impact on our economy is significant, and the opportunity to advance a better future for our communities, schools and children is essential.


John B. King is the 10th U.S. Secretary of Education, co-chair of K12 Climate Action with the Aspen Institute, and founder of Strong Future Maryland. Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers and a commissioner with K12 Climate Action with the Aspen Institute. George Miller served in Congress from 1975 to 2015 representing California’s 7th and 11th districts and chaired the House Education and Labor Committee from 2006 to 2011.