Home > Uncategorized > Deterioration of Public Schools Is NOT a Universal Problem: Poor Districts Have Poor Facilities; Affluent Districts Not So Much

Deterioration of Public Schools Is NOT a Universal Problem: Poor Districts Have Poor Facilities; Affluent Districts Not So Much

Rachel Cohen’s Op Ed in yesterday’s Washington Post vividly described the deterioration of public school facilities in our country, a situation that has garnered national attention for at least twenty years. In doing so, however, she missed making two points. First, the problem is NOT universal: affluent districts have superior facilities to those in poverty stricken communities and cities. And secondly, in accepting the argument that federal dollars should not be used for the upgrade of school facilities, Congress opened the door for stimulus funds to instead be appropriated for Race to the Top– a federal intrusion that far outweighs any that would have accompanied the use of federal funds for school construction.

Here’s a personal anecdote that reflects the disparity in school facility standards. After working in western Maryland as a Superintendent for ten years I decided to seek a new assignment, focussing my job search on large districts in PA and NY. Two of the affluent districts where I interviewed were interested in me based on my experience overseeing school construction projects because they had “dilapidated” facilities that needed to be renovated or replaced. I was astonished to find that their definition of “dilapidated” came no where close to what the definition was in my current district, nor did it match the definition in the two New England districts I led earlier in my career. The varied definitions of “dilapidated” reflected the attitudes of the parents and taxpayers in the districts. In affluent districts where many voters and parents have their homes “freshened” by interior designers on a regular basis and the landscaping done professionally, the notion of having they children attend a school with leaky windows, inoperable plumbing, and shoddy heating systems was incomprehensible. Indeed, one district considered a school I attended as a junior high student to be “outdated”, a notion that made me wonder if my “sell-by” date had passed.

It is unrealistic to expect states to demand that all school facilities be brought up to the standards of the most affluent districts, but it is unconscionable for states to allow students to attend the kinds of facilities described in Ms. Cohen’s article. In her piece, Ms. Cohen described the “history” of the federal government’s efforts to provide supplementary funding, concluding with this:

The last time Congress debated school infrastructure spending was in 2009, as part of President Barack Obama’s stimulus deal. But Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) — one of three Republicans needed by Democrats to vote for the bill’s passage — argued that school facilities are a local responsibility and that the feds shouldn’t be involved. Billions of dollars in school funding were scrapped from the bill as a result. Even today some moderate Democrats, including Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.), voice skepticism about the federal government’s role in funding school buildings.

Ms. Collins’ and Mr. Kaine’s principled stands on local control of school funding didn’t result in the loss of federal funds for public education. Instead of that money being used to build or upgrade schools, $4,000,000,000 went to Race to the Top- the Obama administration’s misbegotten school reform package that promoted for-profit charter schools as the solution to the “failing” public schools. Anyone who spends any time observing public school buildings across our country can immediately see the legacy of the last federal investment in public school facilities. The $1,000,000,000 allocated for public school facilities in the Roosevelt administration provided communities with modern school buildings without dictating curriculum policy.

Our President prides himself on being unconventional. Maybe he might propose a true unconventional idea: give each state a block grant to use exclusively for the upgrade of public school facilities. The source of the funds would be the trickle down revenues from the newly enriched plutocrats. Why not engage in magical thinking? It seems to work for the GOP!

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