States Could Get $25 Billion In School Construction Funds
By Tiffany Danitz, Staff Writer
School construction is a national priority as the presidential race heads for the home stretch. Despite partisan wrangling in Washington, D.C. over funding, governors may ultimately get as much as $25 billion in aid.
"Millions of young people are trying to learn in schools where roofs are leaking, ceilings are falling down and basic safety features are absent," Education Secretary Richard Riley said at a Capitol Hill press conference on Wednesday. School buildings across the nation -- especially in rural and urban areas -- are suffering from age and overcrowding. About 3.5 million students attend facilities termed "less than adequate" by the National Center for Education Statistics. One in five schools have flaws in safety equipment, roofs, electrical systems, and air quality, and one in four are overcrowded, according to NCES, the research wing of the Department of Education.
The center estimates it will cost $127 billion to bring buildings up to snuff.
Traditionally, states and localities have shouldered the burden of raising money to fix, update and build schools. This summer, New Jersey made headlines when its Legislature approved a $12 billion school construction program that is believed to be the nation's largest.
Now Riley is urging Congress to pass a House bill that would give states a hand. It 's sponsors are Democratic Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, the ranking minority member of a House Education Committee, and Connecticut Republican Rep. Nancy L. Johnson.
Known as America's Better Schools Act , the legislation would subsidize the interest normally paid by states on school modernization bonds up to $24.8 billion. That would free up state money otherwise spent on interest.
Bigger states -- California, New York, Texas, Illinois and Florida -- would benefit most. Sparsely populated states like Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota, Delaware and Alaska would get the least.
Bill Goodling, Republican Chairman of the House education panel, isn't one of 226 House members listed as co-sponsors of the bill. Of those 226 supporters, only 21 are Republicans.
Goodling has authored a competing bill that would provide up to $1.5 billion in state grants annually for up to five years for school repair, renovation and technology upgrade costs. A special allotment would give charter schools independent public schools- more leeway to use federal money to buy buildings.
In Goodling's bill, school construction money would be doled out based on child poverty rates, but states would have the freedom to decide which schools receive funding.
Riley asked lawmakers to rise above partisan politics and concentrate instead on helping local school districts meet construction costs.
Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence Summers said that school construction "is the most pressing national investment issue our country faces. The richest, most powerful country there has ever been shouldn't be educating children in closets because there is no room," he said.
One Democratic congressman backing America's Better Classroom Act is North Carolina's Bob Etheridge, whose state has the nation's fourth fastest growing school-age population. A former two-term superintendent of schools in North Carolina, Etheridge has sent a letter to President Clinton seeking a veto of any budget that doesn't include the $25 billion for school construction contained in the legislation he backs. . "We have an obligation to give students and teachers a quality facility to go to," he added.
Regardless of which bill is included in the budget, Goodling says he expects that states can count on some form of help for school construction before the 106th Congress adjourns.