Legislative Column: No Christmas Miracle for Improving School Facilities
By Jeff Simering, Director of Legislation
President Barack Obama proclaimed a “Christmas Miracle” six years ago in the bipartisan agreement on the “Every Student Success Act” (ESSA). But hopes for another Christmas miracle in a major federal investment in public school infrastructure funding have faded. School facility investments were dropped from the recently enacted trillion-dollar bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (PL 117-58; H.R. 3684) after negotiations with a small bipartisan group of senators. And prior to Thanksgiving, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a pared-down $1.7 trillion budget reconciliation bill, the Build Back Better Act (H.R. 5376), dropping the school facilities funding that was included in the earlier version of the bill. Senate action is still pending.
Unfortunately, federal school infrastructure funding has a disappointing history in recent years. The Trump Administration proposed on-and-off initiatives to improve national infrastructure through federal-state partnerships. At times school facilities were part of the infrastructure initiative and at other times no school funding was specified. In any case, there was little follow-through on national infrastructure improvement by the Administration or Congress.
The Biden Administration announced its own $2 trillion national infrastructure initiative in April 2021 -- the American Jobs Plan -- which included $100 billion in federal school facilities investments. The Administration’s Plan for school infrastructure was generally modeled on the Rebuild America’s Schools bill crafted by House Chairman Bobby Scott (D-Va.,) and Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI). The school facilities funding, however, did not survive negotiations between the White House and a group of bipartisan senators, and was not included in the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure legislation signed on November 15th. Nonetheless, $80 billion in federal school facility investments were included in the initial House version of the $3.5 trillion social infrastructure reconciliation bill. But again, school infrastructure funding did not survive negotiations to reduce the cost by half in the House-passed final version of the Build Back Better legislation. Further revisions and possible reductions are expected in Senate consideration of this Budget Reconciliation measure.
Opportunities for major federal school infrastructure funding typically occur maybe once each decade. The last major federal investment in school facilities was $25 billion in interest-free school construction bonds contained in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 in the throes of the Great Recession. And while some building system upgrades and repairs (HVAC, roofs, windows, etc.) are being supported with American Rescue Plan funds, school replacement, major construction and renovation were clearly not contemplated in the three-year expenditure timeline for these emergency funds.
The nation’s school facilities continue to receive a “D” grade by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Unfortunately, a major opportunity to upgrade our children’s schools has been missed, and the problem remains.