The Growing Crisis Of Our Education Infrastructure

Jeff Bryant

You’ve probably heard about the fierce battle over school bathrooms raging across the country. It’s an important story for sure because transgender students should not be blocked from entering facilities of their gender identity.

But the current fight over gender equity shouldn’t take away from another bathroom battle taking place in our nation’s public schools: whether students have access to a functioning bathroom at all.

In Detroit, a local news outlet recently reported bathroom facilities in some schools are in such poor states of repair that teachers are forced to tell students, “No, there’s nowhere in the building to go to the bathroom.”

Physical conditions in Detroit public schools have gotten so bad, teachers created a Twitter campaign showing pictures of broken toilets, leaking ceilings, moldy walls and buckled floors. A prolonged sickout by the teachers finally got the government’s attention, but the legislature is still dithering over the money to fix the schools.

In Philadelphia, a recent audit by the City Controller deemed bathrooms throughout the district “not up to first world standards,” according to a local news report. Inspectors called school conditions in general “dangerous,” and bathrooms “are worse.”

In some school districts, the physical state of the buildings have gotten so bad, community groups organize to take on the maintenance tasks governments won’t provide. In one Kansas community, a high school student resorted to a crowdfunding campaign to raise enough money to fix his school’s bathroom.

Since this is Infrastructure Week, as my colleague Dave Johnson reports, let’s consider an essential infrastructure that’s not talked about as much as roads, bridges, trains, and utilities: education infrastructure. Lets’ examine how schools in so many places have deteriorated to deplorable states, why we drifted away from talking about education as “essential infrastructure,” and what we need to do to get the discussion back on track.

Not Just About Buildings

As I reported earlier this year, a massive backlog in school construction and maintenance has left thousands of school buildings nationwide in need of upgrades.

I pointed to a survey of the backlog reviewed in The Washington Post that revealed, “The nation is spending $46 billion less each year on school construction and maintenance than is necessary to ensure safe and healthy facilities.”

I also noted that a national project to address this backlog would likely create and sustain over 400,000 jobs, based on calculations by economist Jared Bernstein.

But it would be a mistake to confine a discussion of education infrastructure to school buildings alone. Schools are so much more than that.

In Atlanta, for instance, getting to school is often the problem. At one point in the school year, nearly a quarter of the district’s bus fleet was disabled and unable to transport kids to classes. In rural districts, the problem of adequate transportation is even more pronounced as consolidations extend the length of travel to and from schools and transportation costs continue to spiral upward.

Some rural school districts try to solve the transportation problem by bringing instruction to students via digital delivery. But recent research finds online delivery could potentially harm the quality of education. (Plus, close to 50 percent of rural residents don’t have access to high-speed broadband at 25 mbps and above, considered the minimum necessary for such applications as video, according to a federal broadband statistics report.)

The largest outlay for school infrastructure, though, is for personnel. Schools need human capital of all kinds, most importantly, classroom teachers.

But despite growing populations of students in the U.S., the number of teachers employed in our education system has barely increased. While the number of teachers projected to be in schools in 2013, the most recent year available, was 3.5 million, that figure is only 1 percent higher than the number in 2003.

What we invest in those teachers has declined dramatically, too. A recent op-ed in U.S. News & World Report reviewed data on teacher pay and found it is “low and flat-lining. The average starting salary for U.S. teachers is $36,141, and the average overall salary is $56,383. Holding constant for inflation, the latter number has actually decreased since the 1999-2000 school year – in other words, teachers haven’t gotten a raise in 15 years.”

Conservatives like to rail against “high education costs,” but the reality is our nation is spending less on education.

We’re eight years away from the Great Recession, yet most states still spend less per student for elementary and secondary schools – in some cases, much less – than they did in 2008. Nationally, total per-pupil spending on K-12 public schools has dropped three years in a row.

The Case For Education Infrastructure

No one would be surprised to see a roadway system bearing ever increasing amounts of traffic year after year, while getting diminishing infusions of maintenance and personnel attention, to eventually show signs of deterioration. But somehow there are different expectations for schools. Why is that?

First, there are prominent voices in our government who really do want to get rid of public schools.

With the rise of the Tea-Party faction in the Republican Party, we’ve witnessed the growing influence of those who advocate ending public schools. In 2011, a branch of the tea party that operates in Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania openly declared its intention to get rid of public schools. In a 2011 article in Think Progress, Teri Adams, the head of the Independence Hall Tea Party and a leading advocate of passage of school voucher bills, stated, “We think public schools should go away,” and, “Our ultimate goal is to shut down public schools and have private schools only.”

In the 2012 presidential election, there was a legitimate candidate in the Republican Party, Rick Santorum, who advocated for ending public education.

The emergence of the Tea Party in part led to Republican takeovers of state houses and governorships across the country, and many of these officials refuse to do what is necessary to maintain public schools – and even work to undermine local efforts to improve public education.

There is another, however, even more pernicious conversation about public schools that frames them as something other than essential infrastructure.

For years, politicians from both parties have gone from talking about education as a human right to talking about it as a “choice.” Schools, we’re increasingly told, are consumer items offered in a competitive market where choice should be maximized.

For instance, former Florida governor and Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush once compared access to schools with shopping for milk. “I wish our schools could be more like milk,” he opined. “Go down the aisle of nearly any major supermarket these days and you will find an incredible selection of milk…They even make milk for people who can’t drink milk.”

Bush took his observation from the dairy aisle and turned it into Florida’s disastrous school system, where charter school corruption runs rampant and for-profit operators exploit the most vulnerable communities.

So we’ve gone from a conversation about what people really want most – the guarantee of a high-quality public school, accessible to all students – to a conversation about “choice.” How absurd that conversation would be if it were applied to transportation or utilities infrastructure. What different kinds of roads and bridges do we need other than the ones that are the best engineered based on what we know about roads and bridges? What is the argument for a utility grid that would be anything other than what works best for as many people as possible?

Students completely understand this. Just as they are awakening the national consciousness to the need to lift the weight of prejudice and oppression from transgender students in schools, they’re calling for adequate investments in their education infrastructure.

Most recently, hundreds of students in Boston walked out of school to protest the lack of investment in their system. As The Boston Globe reports, for the second time this year students across the city left class, hit the streets, and thronged City Hall Plaza and a City Council hearing “to protest cuts to the school budget” and “highlight the need to fully fund education.”

“I think that the first priority of the entire world should be education,” the Globe reporter quotes one of the students, “because education is the future.”

Amen.

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