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House Democrats Unveil $100B School Facility Upgrade Bill, Urge Inclusion in Long-Sought Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal

By Carolyn Phenicie | January 30, 2019

An Oklahoma teacher talks about his classroom in a portable building in 2018. (J Pat Carter/AFP/Getty Images)

Updated

On a day when a dangerous deep freeze settled across wide swaths of America, echoing memories of last year’s cold snap that left children shivering in their classrooms, congressional Democrats introduced a bill to spend $100 billion on improving school infrastructure.

Spending on improvements to schools, congressional Democrats said, should be part of any large-scale infrastructure bill, like the one President Donald Trump has proposed.

“Every day across districts in America, students and educators attend schools that are either unsafe or lack basic resources, or both, and this is simply unacceptable,” Rep. Bobby Scott, the Democratic chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, said at a press conference in Washington.

The bill, dubbed the Rebuild America’s Schools Act, would put $70 billion in grants and $30 billion in bonds toward improving schools, with a priority given to the schools in worst condition and those serving high numbers of low-income students. Funds could also be used for technology upgrades.

President Donald Trump has several times proposed a bipartisan investment in infrastructure to the tune of $1 trillion. He didn’t mention school improvements in his 2018 State of the Union, which advocates considered a missed opportunity; it’s unknown if he’ll address it in next week’s address.

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Public schools should be included in any large-scale infrastructure package, Scott said.

“I think it’s very likely if we have an infrastructure bill that this could easily be part of it,” he said.

Members of Congress have introduced more than a dozen school infrastructure upgrade bills in the past 20 years, according to a search of congressional records. Scott introduced a similar $100 billion infrastructure investment bill in 2017.

None of those bills advanced through the legislative process, and past federal infrastructure investments, including the 2009 stimulus, didn’t include schools.

But future projects should, said Sen. Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, a cosponsor of the bill.

“Public schools are public infrastructure, and we need to invest in them, just as we invest in roads and bridges and other public infrastructure,” Reed said.

Indeed, crumbling school infrastructure has attracted national headlines, from those shivering children last year to a pattern of neglect that left dangerous levels of lead and asbestos in Philadelphia schools.

State lawmakers and the public are taking note, too: Voters in Rhode Island approved a $250 million bond to improve school facilities, and those in New Jersey approved a large-scale bond that includes $100 million to improve school water infrastructure.

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A 2017 study by the American Society of Civil Engineers found that more than half of American schools needed repairs, renovations or modernizations to be considered in “fair condition,” and a 2014 Education Department study estimated that total costs would run $197 million.

The bill also would create a national database on the condition of America’s schools. The last government survey of the condition of schools was in 1996; an amendment added to an earlier version of the Education Department’s 2019 spending bill that would have required a new Government Accountability Office study of the issue wasn’t included in the final version of the law.

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