The bill for crumbling schools comes due

February 18, 1997|By Neal R. Peirce

WASHINGTON -- If President Clinton is right in identifying education as the ''national security'' issue of our times, how will we pay to improve it?

The obvious answer: mostly through local and state governments, as we always have.

One item in the president's 10-point education reform program crystallizes, however, the paradox of American federalism. It's his proposal to spend $5 billion in federal money to help communities finance $20 billion worth of school construction over four years.

It's tough to dispute the need for a massive wave of school repair and building in America -- especially as the baby boom ''echo'' propels a rising wave of youngsters into our schools.

In community after community, schools are decaying -- roofs leaking, heating and air conditioning systems broken, walls and stairways falling apart, classrooms overcrowded.

Schools thrown up in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, a time of rapid and cheap construction, are at the end of their useful lives. Schools built earlier in the century often reflect conditions like those the Education Writers Association discovered in Wisconsin: open stairwells that could draw fire, old wiring, rusted fire escapes and deteriorating foundations.

Jonathan Kozol, in his 1991 book, ''Savage Inequalities,'' wrote of public schools with gaping ceiling holes, without playgrounds or science labs, the stench of urine permeating halls.

One-third of all America's schools now need extensive repair or replacement, the General Accounting Office reports. Sixty percent of schools have at least one major problem, such as a leaky roof or crumbling walls. Seven million youngsters attend schools with life threatening safety code violations.

The GAO found conditions worst in inner cities, but bad enough in suburbs too. Ironically, the states with the worst conditions include several which claim they're on the cutting edge of the new American economy -- Washington, California, Arizona, Oregon, Massachusetts, Ohio and North Carolina.

Intolerable conditions

''Crumbling schools are everywhere,'' notes Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, who requested the GAO report. Why does it matter? She answers: ''America can't compete if our students can't learn, and our students can't learn if their schools are falling down.''

As for teachers, the Institute for Educational Leadership notes that thousands of schools offer conditions other professionals would never tolerate.

How do congressional Republicans react to these horrors? Avoid more federal commitments, says Rep. Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, chairman of the House Economic and Education Opportunities. His priority: discover ''what works and what's wasted'' in 760 existing federal education programs spread over 39 agencies and costing $121 billion a year.

Anyway, says Mr. Goodling, the president's proposed $5 billion ''wouldn't scratch the surface'' of overdue work on schools.

It appears Mr. Goodling would rather do nothing, ever. But there's a deeper federalist argument: In a country that believes fervidly in local control, what's more local than the condition of the local school?

OK, it's hard to get school bond referendums passed -- especially with fewer voting families with children in the local schools. But communities can be mobilized to tackle this problem; thousands do act every year.

And if localities are reluctant, the states remain responsible. Thirteen have established comprehensive facilities programs to assist localities; many more should.

Instead of a comparatively small federal aid effort, maybe we need a massive national campaign of shame -- posters that associate pictures of responsible local officials (or anti-school bond leaders) with images of decrepit school conditions.

There's real danger that anticipated federal aid will act as an excuse for local leaders saying: ''We're poor, our voters are reluctant, we won't act until we get assistance from Washington.''

Clearly, fresh thinking is needed. State governments need to rewrite codes so they no longer require single-story construction and vast campus-like settings.

Then there's the issue of schools open all day and evening for community use -- the idea former Sen. Bill Bradley, N.J., pushed so vigorously. If teacher and custodian unions agreed to all-day schools without excessive overtime pay, maybe local voters would be persuaded to repair decrepit schools.

Of course it's tough to oppose Mr. Clinton's $5 billion for the hellhole schools. How can we tolerate conditions that abuse children?

The GAO says the national school repair/replacement bill is $112 billion. A budget-tight Congress will never pay that. As difficult as it seems, the federalist solution argument -- obliging states and localities to pay up, to be responsible for America's next generation -- is still our best hope.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

Pub Date: 2/18/97

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