As GOP Leaves K-12 Out of Its Infrastructure Plan, Advocates Look For Alternatives
A new Senate Republican proposal unveiled Thursday for federal investment in the nation’s infrastructure does not include any money for school construction and renovation, lowering the odds that it will be a priority for the Biden administration and Congressional Democrats in a package they hope to have signed into law later this year.
School building advocates are disappointed with the proposal after decades of lobbying for federal support for K-12 infrastructure. Some are urging districts to prioritize renovation and construction with a portion of the dollars they’re receiving from recent federal stimulus packages.
“Our system of financing K-12 infrastructure is not actually capable of delivering the amount of revenue that’s needed to support the rebuilding of 50-plus-year-old buildings,” said Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund and a leading advocate for federal K-12 infrastructure funding. “That’s why it makes sense for the federal government to come to the table.”
President Joe Biden in March proposed the American Jobs Plan, which would amount to $2.3 trillion in federal spending on a broad list of priorities, including roads, bridges, waterways, public transportation, and airports.
Several of that plan’s initiatives focus on K-12 schools:
- $50 billion in grants and $50 billion in bonds for school building improvements;
- $20 billion for electrifying school buses;
- $45 billion for eliminating the nation’s lead pipes, including those that send water to schools; and
- $100 billion to achieve broadband connectivity in every home by 2030, which would enable all K-12 students to do homework and learn online from home.
The one-page Republican proposal omits the first three items, and shrinks the proposed broadband investment to $65 billion. It also proposes a total of only $257 billon in new investments, less than one-sixth of what the Biden administration wants to spend.
Biden has said he would prefer for Congress to pass an infrastructure bill with bipartisan support, rather than forge ahead with Democratic votes alone. His administration has spent the last few weeks in talks with Senate Republicans, aiming to find common ground on aspects of an infrastructure package that could garner at least 10 Republican votes in the Senate to overcome the 60-vote threshold for legislation that’s not directly tied to the federal budget.
Republicans have blasted the American Jobs Plan as wasteful spending and a departure from the traditional definition of infrastructure. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., told CNBC in April that she believed Republicans in Congress would not have an appetite to invest in “extra infrastructure areas” like schools and home health aides.
In a statement Thursday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration is concerned about the omission in the Republican plan of several key priorities, including the plan to abandon lead pipes nationwide.
School advocates also expressed disappointment with the Republicans’ counteroffer.
“I think it’s highly possible that schools could be left out of whatever infrastructure proposal moves forward on Capitol Hill. We are fighting again to make sure that doesn’t happen,” said Chris Rogers, policy analyst at AASA, the School Superintendents Association. AASA supports a House bill, the Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act, that would direct $130 billion in federal funds to school infrastructure—$30 billion more than Biden is proposing.
Filardo said she hopes Biden will ultimately commit to his stated spending goals, even if it means failing to successfully reach across party lines. She’s especially disappointed Republicans jettisoned the K-12 initiatives, rather than making a case for a smaller federal role for investing in school buildings.
“The responsibility for a federal role is not going to go away if you ignore it,” she said.
Funding for school infrastructure lags far behind documented need
The National Council for School Facilities estimates the nation is spending roughly half of what it needs to on an annual basis to keep up with routine building maintenance, modernize aging systems, and stay ahead of enrollment growth and rapid advancements in technology. Many school buildings nationwide are dilapidated and overcrowded, and air quality in school buildings and buses is a major concern that affects academic performance and student well-being.
Funding for school building improvements, which can take years from conception to execution, is distinct from schools’ annual operational funds for expenses like staff salaries, curriculum, and digital devices. Aside from a handful of narrowly targeted grants, the federal government’s last major investment in K-12 school buildings was before World War II, during the Franklin D. Roosevelt presidency.
Many school districts perpetually struggle to scrounge up enough local revenue for projects to improve building infrastructure, and state investment varies widely, with roughly a dozen states offering no funding for school construction projects.
K-12 education has already received a significant infusion of federal dollars in the last year, thanks to three rounds of stimulus aid to help with recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. On a recent webinar for school administrators, Filardo recommended districts set aside 15 percent of those funds for school construction. If all districts did that, she said, the nation would be investing an additional $20 billion in school buildings even without additional federal dollars specifically for infrastructure.