How will federal funds help fix our crumbling schools?

Tens of thousands of schools across the country need repair—or rebuilding—thanks to decades of financial neglect.
By: | July 21, 2021
New air conditioning systems can play an aesthetic role in a building's design, such as at this school in Texas' Spring ISD.New air conditioning systems can play an aesthetic role in a building's design, such as at this school in Texas' Spring ISD.

According to the 2016 State of Our Schools Report, state and local governments underfund K-12 facilities by $46 billion annually, and a more recent Government Accountability Office study showed that in 25% of all school districts at least half the schools needed upgrades or replacements of major building systems—including heating, ventilation and HVAC (air conditioning) systems, plumbing, wiring and windows. The study also concluded that 41% of districts need to update or replace HVAC systems in at least half their schools, since a leaky roof or HVAC system can lead to water damage and ultimately exposure to mold or asbestos by teachers and students.

Before the pandemic brought the issue of airflow to the forefront of the nation’s collective consciousness, ventilation experts rarely conducted air quality testing in U.S. schools. According to Kevin Thomas, a business rep for the union of ventilation workers in Seattle, that was a big mistake. “You don’t feel the CO2 levels going up; you just start to get tired,” explained Thomas, emphasizing that air quality issues often go unrecognized.

Other HVAC experts agree, estimating that about 36,000 schools have ventilation systems in disrepair. But the technology used by many of those is so outdated, a simple restoration to the original system won’t suffice. “Most districts are still putting in HVAC systems that were invented and designed in the 1970s, and those are not going to get you to your health and wellness goals or your carbon and energy-efficiency goals,” noted Tony Hans, an engineer with CMTA Engineering Consultants in Kentucky who specializes in green buildings. The outdated technology is also a drain on school districts’ budgets, says Laura Schifter, leader of the Aspen Institute’s K-12 Climate Action initiative and a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She points out that schools currently spend billions on energy that doesn’t actually heat or cool classrooms. Instead, it’s lost to leaky windows and badly set thermometers.

And yet, there appears to be no clear plan to remedy the problem.


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So, what’s to be done?

In January, U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) introduced the Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act, which would send $130 billion in federal money—$100 billion in grants and another $30 billion in bonds—to schools in need of repair over the next decade. The act was originally incorporated into President Biden’s American Jobs Plan but was removed in June as part of a compromise between Biden and moderate Congressional Republicans. Today, the $130 billion of Biden’s American Rescue Plan that is earmarked for K-12 schools to help them reopen, reduce class size and purchase personal protective equipment allows for funds to be put toward “improv[ing] ventilation in school buildings.”

The question is when—or whether—it will happen.

Guidance from the U.S. Education Department released July 7 cautioned against major capital projects that will require too large a chunk of that money and entail not just approval from the state but involve complex requirements for using federal money for such purposes even though investing in ventilation systems and new buildings now could make it easier to keep schools open during future disease outbreaks. The discouragement from ED is based on what they state as a concern that such spending “may limit an LEA’s ability to support other essential needs and initiatives.”

But states can’t afford to go it alone, especially in high-poverty areas where schools are most in need of repairs. “If we’re going to do anything about the school construction problem, the federal government is going to have to step up,” posits Rep. Scott, who chairs the House Committee on Education and Labor. “Otherwise, schools are on their own to build and renovate.”