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To Fix Crumbling Schools, Require an Audit First

States and districts need to specify priorities before getting federal money for construction and repairs.

President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan promises to invest $100 billion to upgrade and construct new public schools. That represents a fraction of what schools need — or are likely to get — given other priorities.

After decades of neglect and delayed maintenance, about half of U.S. schools are in a state of “disrepair.” Overall, the U.S. is underspending on these facilities by an estimated $46 billion per year, according to the 2016 State of Our Schools report.

Given the chasm between the scale of the problem and the money available to address it in any of the proposed new federal measures, the Biden administration and state governments will need to triage the spending. When needs are this open-ended on infrastructure projects, there is always a risk that money will be misspent.

To ensure that the new education dollars go where they are most needed, the federal government should give states incentives to audit school facilities as a condition for receiving extra funding, now and in the future. School facilities represent the second largest sector of public infrastructure investment, after highways — though the portion of federal, as opposed to local and state, spending on schools is a fraction of what it is for roadways.

Yet there is no federal data base — and few reliable regional audits — to keep track of them. Fewer than one-third of states have either conducted a statewide audit of school facilities or required districts to do so, according to the Government Accounting Office. At the same time, states cut their capital spending on schools by 31% — the equivalent of $20 billion — in the decade after the recession of 2008.

One reason for the lack of adequate data is that most school-infrastructure funds are allocated locally and come from local tax revenues and bonds, a financing system that both limits spending and greatly exacerbates inequities between wealthier and poorer districts. Another reason is the sheer scale involved: California alone has 10,000 schools and 700 million square feet of school facilities, according toJeffrey Vincent of the Center for Cities and Schools at the University of California, Berkeley.

Audits are expensive, and, “if you’re not doing anything about a problem,” it’s better not to know, adds Laura Jimenez of the Center for American Progress. That’s why the federal government needs to make data-gathering one condition for receiving additional federal funds for infrastructure.

How else to figure out where to start in a city like Detroit, which alone would require an estimated $500 million to bring its schools into a state of good repair, with half of that needed to fix facilities in “urgent need of repair”?

After the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the state Legislature established an infrastructure council charged with upgrading and maintaining everything from drinking-water systems and broadband to roads and bridges based on “a continuous physical inventory and condition assessment”; but school facilities are not part of council’s purview.

A few states and jurisdictions have developed infrastructure report cards that could serve as a model. In 2018, Washington D.C. developed a plan that aims to assess everything from the district’s school maintenance and enrollment growth to transportation access and underused and overcrowded schools.

The district also has developed a formula for prioritizing modernization projects across all eight wards. The formula gives greatest weight to “equity,” including the percentage of at-risk students in a given ward.

Many states and districts that audit school facilities, and that have increased spending, are doing so, at least in part, in response to school-funding equity judgments issued by courts against states like New Jersey and Maryland. These cases illustrate the need for states to include district officials, as well as local educators and other rank-and-file personnel, in detailing their schools’ needs.

That’s a lesson New Jersey learned when a rushed effort to carry out a five-year school-facilities planning requirement was initially stymied because districts lacked “the necessary specialized knowledge of the relationship between facilities and curricular needs,” according to a 2004 report by the Education Law Center. It wasn’t until New Jersey established a school-construction unit responsible solely for building K-12 schools, and assigned outside professional management firms to each district, that the state succeeded in accelerating projects that had languished for years.

Another important model is in Leander, Texas, a fast-growing district outside Austin that corralled educators, maintenance workers and outside construction experts to develop a template for school construction and renovation. A report by the Texas comptroller found that the cost of Leander schools consistently came in “well below average,” and noted the district’s “well-designed standards,” including efficient use of science labs that were shared among classrooms.

Finally, states should follow the lead of Illinois and Maryland by convening experts to analyze existing school-funding formulas and determine how to provide more funding to the neediest students and schools.

Turning on a spigot of cash can be a formula for waste and even corruption. That’s why careful planning by states and districts will be key to spending the taxpayers’ money wisely.

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