School started in Baltimore this month with temperatures in the 90s. Approximately 60 buildings in the district lack functional air conditioning, meaning kids and teachers are subject to sweltering conditions, which can have a huge impact on kids’ ability to concentrate on learning. Recently, teachers across Baltimore, through their union, the Baltimore Teachers Union, organized a fan drive so the community could assist with climate control in classrooms. Their goal was to collect 500 fans, but school officials were concerned that some of the city’s school buildings and their aging electrical systems can’t handle multiple fans running simultaneously.
What’s wrong with this picture? First, according to the Economic Policy Institute, teachers — who spend on average of $450 of their own money every school year on school supplies — have resorted to asking the public for donations to make their classrooms inhabitable. Second, it turns out that Baltimore City Public Schools has a $3 billion maintenance backlog from decades of underfunding. The city is asking teachers to go to work and kids to go to school every day in buildings that are literally falling apart. It says a lot about the state’s priorities and the desperate need to invest in school infrastructure. The Interagency Committee on School Construction recently approved $9 million to add air conditioning to five Baltimore city schools and $13.5 million for six Baltimore County schools, but the funds don’t come close to meeting the needs.
And Baltimore city and county certainly aren’t the only school districts in the country — or even the state — where a lack of air conditioning in classrooms or inadequate electrical wiring is an issue. According to a 2014 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, 53% of public schools in this country needed to spend money on repairs, renovations and modernizations to put them in good overall condition. A 2016 State of Our Schools report notes the nation should be spending about $145 billion per year to maintain, operate and renew facilities so that they provide healthy and safe 21st-century learning environments for all children. Yet schools around the country are facing outdated roofs, bathroom leaks, sub-par lighting and drafty windows. Not surprisingly, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave our nation’s school buildings a grade of D-plus.
Unfortunately, this is also not a new issue. The Detroit Federation of Teachers filed a lawsuit against the Detroit Public Schools in 2016 demanding that the city fix school buildings that were in disrepair and unsafe for students; and years ago, in 1994, the United Federation of Teachers sued New York City and several government agencies (the Department of Education, the Buildings Department and the New York State Department of Labor) for their failure to maintain healthy and safe school buildings as required by law. After a trial, a Manhattan Supreme Court judge ruled in favor of the UFT and required the city and the Department to inspect, repair and maintain school buildings that had been long-neglected.
Thankfully, Rep. Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat, and Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, and several of their Democratic colleagues have introduced the Rebuild America’s Schools Act in Congress, which would provide $100 billion for school infrastructure, with the lion’s share in direct spending going toward school modernization, renovations and repairs.
Importantly, school districts receiving aid under the law would also have to prioritize infrastructure projects at schools that serve the highest shares of students receiving free and reduced-price meals, with the goal of serving schools with the greatest need in low-income areas that have been long-ignored, much like in Baltimore. This funding would help schools recruit and retain good teachers, and help those teachers focus on their students’ health, behavior, engagement, learning and academic growth. It would also help close the $46 billion nationwide shortfall in annual funding for public school infrastructure.
For too long, educators have been left holding the bag for this broken promise to the public schools that 90% of kids in this country attend. It’s time to fund our future and fight for adequate and sustainable investment in our public schools so that every kid has the resources they need to succeed.