Fixing Schools: A Smart Plan for Jobs

Michelle Chen

Politicians love to talk about how to fix” the education system, from imposing standardized tests to shuttering failing” schools. But they’ve been ignoring a big, basic fix for the nation’s schools — one that might help fix the unemployment rate as well. A comprehensive school renovation program could be a boost for jobs and for public education.

Revamping schools is one pillar of Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky’s new job-creation bill, which would provide 400,000 construction and 250,000 maintenance jobs to fix American schools,” among various other public-service related work projects.

The program is known as Fix America’s Schools Today (FAST!). Developed by the Economic Policy Institute and the 21st Century School Fund, the proposal points out there’s a big job to do in the country’s foundering school buildings and facilities:

[S]chool districts have been under-spending on maintenance and repair for many years. Chronic deferred maintenance and repair can lead to energy inefficiencies, unsafe drinking water, water damage and moldy environments, poor air quality, inadequate fire alarms and fire safety, compromised building security, and structural dangers.

By conservative estimates the accumulated backlog of deferred maintenance and repair amounts to at least $270 billion. Including the cost to green-up” existing schools — and using less conservative assumptions — the cost of needed improvements to buildings and systems could exceed $500 billion….

Most school districts do not have resources to address the maintenance and repair backlog, let alone to make energy conservation and efficiency improvements.

It’s not just the buildings that could use some work. A dilapidated school is likely a manifestation of other social hardships affecting the whole neighborhood, including the unemployment epidemic, failing infrastructure and underfunded public services. A study by the 21st Century School Fund showed:

at the school district and zip code levels, that there was tremendous disparity in the spending by school districts to provide healthy, safe and educational adequate school facilities. Over the period from 19952004, the lowest income communities had by far the least spending.

Helping parents get a job fixing their kids’ schools may help reverse that pattern of disinvestment and social inequality. So renovating a local school means more than slapping on a fresh coat of paint, according to EPI:

Construction and building repair generally create 9,00010,000 jobs per billion dollars spent. Eliminating even half of the entire backlog and improvements could eventually create more than two million jobs, over a period of years. Addressing even one-tenth of the needed improvements could immediately create half a million jobs.

The jobs would be crucial for the construction industry, which has collapsed along with the housing bubble and left devastated laborers, contractors and retail suppliers around the country.

The financing of FAST!, as outlined in Schakowsky’s jobs proposal (and possibly in a parallel plan to be floated by the Obama administration) is an open question. But the EPI suggests a funding formula based on the needs of individual school districts and estimates of how many jobs would be generated and how much energy would be saved.

Some of these renovation goals would help green up schools as well: fixing ventilation so students with asthma can breathe cleaner air, installing solar or wind power systems, retrofitting to improve energy efficiency, or modernizing plumbing systems.

For students, a better learning environment means better learning. According to a 2010 report by the Environmental Protection Agency: health, attendance and academic performance improve with increased maintenance. Furthermore, schools with better physical conditions show improved academic performance while schools with fewer janitorial staff personnel and higher maintenance backlogs show poorer academic performance.”

EPI’s scheme provides another ancillary environmental benefit: the program’s costs would be covered by eliminating fossil fuel preferences as in President Obama’s FY2012 budget. Closing these loopholes raises $46 billion over 10 years.”

Fixing up schools isn’t the answer to the jobs crisis, but it could be a simple measure to provide meaningful work while addressing critical infrastructural and educational needs, and cleaning up the environment along the way. If only lawmakers were smart enough to spot an elegant solution when they see one.

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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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