The roller-coaster ride that was the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act ended on a downswing for the modernization of our nation’s schools.
Down from the high when the House of Representatives passed a $14 billion school construction bill, preservationists now face an uphill fight for a portion of the state stabilization fund for school repair and renovation.
For my policy job at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, I read newspaper article after newspaper article about school construction. During the weeks that the stimulus legislation was making its way through Washington, it was exciting (and maybe a little worrying as well) to read dozens of media clippings from around the country focusing on school boards that were delaying decisions about their facilities in anticipation of federal money. Exciting because, as a preservationist, I believe that investing in our existing schools and updating them with 21st century technology means that they’ll be around for another 100+ years. On the other hand, I was scared because there was no guarantee that the federal money would ever arrive and actually be spent on school modernization.
Sadly, provisions to modernize some of our worst-off buildings for our neediest children were removed from the Senate version of the recovery bill. However, thanks to a last minute push during the conference period, $8.79 billion was added to the state stabilization fund for K-12 and higher education school repair and renovation.
But even that isn’t as cheery as it sounds.
The final language that President Obama signed into law this week indicates that state stabilization funding “may” be spent on school repair or renovation, and that there are no guidelines on its allocation or use. The decision of whether and how funding should be spent is left completely to the states. Sadly, because preservationists are accustomed to fighting for scraps at the funding table, we shouldn’t be surprised that once again we have our work cut out for us.
In the plus column, there’s $20 billion for a new credit enhancement program in the tax code designed to both improve the ability of school districts to borrow and to reduce the overall cost of that borrowing. But most likely, this will only help the more affluent school districts with the resources to actually pay back the loans.
As many of us know first hand, rehabilitation is labor intensive. That’s why the economists were excited about school modernization; the number crunchers understood that jobs - many jobs - could be created.
But it turns out that those most concerned about the future of our children’s schools didn't finish their homework. Amid the many voices shouting at Congress, it was difficult to show that schools - just like roads and bridges - are an important part of our country’s infrastructure. We were unable to convey that existing funding for our nation’s public school facilities is inadequate, and therefore we now face a huge backlog of deferred maintenance.
Now it’s time for our “make-up test” – one that we’ll take to every statehouse and governor’s office across the nation. I believe it’s critical for preservationists to try again in making the "fix-it first” case, this time to state officials. If we continue to allow our older schools to deteriorate, a case for their abandonment and demolition will be easier and easier to make.
- Renee Kuhlman
Renee Kuhlman is the director of special projects for the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Center for State and Local Policy. Visit our neighborhood schools page to learn more about the work she and her many colleagues nationwide are doing to protect the older schools that anchor many of our historic communities. Also, check out our updated stimulus tracker and analysis page to learn more about what the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act means for preservationists.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.