America’s public school buildings need an extreme makeover.
Just as today’s education must to be aligned with what students need to succeed in the 21st-century global economy, mid-20th-century school facilities that are falling apart, filled with environmental hazards and unable to support modern technology just won’t do. To reclaim the promise of public education in America, school buildings and their classrooms must be safe, healthy and welcoming.
Half of the schools our children attend were built in the 1950s and 1960s. If homes had some of the decrepit, structurally unsound and moldy conditions present in today’s obsolete, neglected schools, they would be condemned. Yet we are condemning children, as well as teachers and other school staff, to attend these schools every day.
The state of our school infrastructure is unacceptable. Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers puts out a report card on America’s infrastructure systems, including our schools. Schools received a D in 2013. If our kids came home with D’s, we’d demand an improvement plan. Something –maybe no Facebook until the grades improve!
Teachers and other school staff understand the impact on teaching and learning in degraded conditions. Asthma is the No. 1 chronic illness for children, yet many of these students are suffering in schools with damp, moldy and inadequate air quality, putting even more stress on their vulnerable respiratory systems. Troubling is the fact that U.S. students will miss approximately 14 million school days because of asthma. The American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine says controlling exposure to indoor environmental factors, such as carbon monoxide, dust and pollen, could prevent more than 65 percent of asthma cases among elementary school children. Of course, these toxic conditions also affect teachers and other school staff, who have higher rates of asthma than the general working population.
Retrofitting schools requires repairing out-of-date heating and cooling systems, replacing pipes and taking additional actions to make schools more energy and water efficient. Many buildings need to be enlarged so that closets or utility rooms aren’t converted into makeshift classrooms. Other infrastructure deficiencies common in 50-plus-year-old buildings include leaky roofs, potentially dangerous boilers and no air-conditioning.
According to the U.S. Green Building Council, green schools use an average of 33 percent less energy and 32 percent less water than traditional school buildings, lowering utility costs by an estimated $100,000 per year and resulting in 585,000 pounds of avoided carbon pollution as well as other pollutants.
A significant side benefit of modernizing school infrastructure is job creation. Working with the Clinton Global Initiative and other unions, the AFT has secured $10 billion in labor pension funds to invest in crumbling U.S. infrastructure, which could include modernizing public schools. A recent study by the BlueGreen Alliance shows that the work necessary to improve our schools from a D to a B could create or sustain 452,000 jobs in the United States.
Recent government reports show that the price tag for the needed repairs, renovations and modernization of schools could reach $271 billion. Clearly, the need for these improvements is there, but what we need now is the political will to invest in our school infrastructure so that our students can be assured that they are learning in structurally sound, safe, healthy, modern buildings.
We need to put our children in the best possible position to succeed. BlueGreen Alliance co-chairs Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers, and Michael Brune, president of the Sierra Club, agree with us that we’re doing a disservice to this generation of students by giving them outdated, neglected buildings with leaky roofs, poor air quality and other chemical concerns.
It’s time for America to reclaim the promise of public education by repairing our schools and giving our students the best possible chance for success.
Randi Weingarten is President of the American Federation of Teachers.