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NEA Calls for Modernizing Nation's Schools

Share School Issues Center LogoA National Education Association report calls for $322 billion to modernize the nation's schools. A bipartisan bill proposes loaning $24.8 billion in interest-free bonds for states and school systems to repair and renovate deteriorating and overcrowded schools.

Fixing up our nation's crowded, deteriorating, and Internet unfriendly schools will cost nearly $322 billion, according to Modernizing Our Schools: What Will It Cost?, a draft report recently published by the National Education Association (NEA).

The report's estimate is based on the collection and analysis of research literature, research databases, the NEA's annual survey, analysis of state school-financing legislation, and a comprehensive questionnaire sent to NEA research affiliates. The NEA determined that $268.2 billion is needed for school infrastructures and $53.7 billion for education technology.

Leaking roofs, asbestos removal, modern technology, and new classrooms cost money -- and the price is going up. It's nearly triple an estimate the U.S. General Accounting Office made in 1995, which found our nation's schools needed $112 billion for repairs and modernization. At that time, the report found that nearly one-third of all schools needed extensive repair or replacement, nearly 60 percent of schools had at least one major building problem, and more than half had inadequate environmental conditions.

Not much was done to address those needs during the 1990s, which is a primary reason the costs for infrastructure improvements have increased substantially, according to the NEA report. Schools deteriorated as they continued to age. The average school in our nation is 42 years old; 28 percent of schools are more than 50 years old.

The nation's schools are in disrepair, and growing enrollments contribute to the need for new school construction and building additions. A 1999 Department of Education report, The Baby Boom Echo Continues, forecasts that by 2009, total public and private school enrollment will rise by 4.7 million, up to a record of 54.2 million students.

A new high school costs $18 million to construct and an elementary school costs about $7 million.


The high cost to fix-up our nation's schools prompted Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Connecticut) to offer legislation that would support school districts and states with federal money. "She just recognized a real need to modernize our nation's schools," Johnson's press secretary David White told Education World.

Johnson teamed up with Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-New York) to introduce a bipartisan compromise, America's Better Classroom Act (HR 4094), on March 21, 2000. The bill, modeled after President William Clinton's school construction proposal, would loan $24.8 billion to states and school districts to repair, renovate, and build new schools with interest-free, 15-year bonds.

Although the bill has more than 150 Democratic and Republican cosponsors, there is uncertainty when it will be introduced or whether it will be offered as an amendment or stand-alone bill, White said. The bill lost some of its momentum in March when sponsors intended to offer it as an amendment to the Education Savings Account bill. House leadership pulled that bill, leaving no current legislation to attach the construction bill to.


If Congress eventually approves the construction bill, school districts will have the opportunity chance to improve on school designs. A new U.S. Department of Education report, Schools as Centers of Community: A Citizen's Guide for Planning and Design, offers examples of innovative school designs, incorporating suggestions on how to create schools that are also community centers.

The renovation of existing schools and new construction may also give communities an opportunity to reverse the current trends of building super-sized schools. Education experts say such buildings hinder the social and academic success of students and that smaller, more personal schools do a better job. Some school psychologists also suggest small schools can help administrators control school violence.

With rising construction costs, after nearly half a decade of little to no school construction and renovation, an increasing number of school districts have been doing exactly the opposite -- they continue to merge school districts to create even bigger high school complexes.

The National Association of Secondary School Principals suggests that the ideal high school should have a maximum of 600 students. About 71 percent of children attend schools with at least 1,000 students; the number of students attending schools with more than 1,500 students doubled from 1990 to 1998.

The hardest-hit school districts, which struggle to squeeze in more and more students, are large, urban school districts, according to a government report, The Baby Boom Echo, No End in Sight. New York City; Dade County, in Florida; and Los Angeles are examples of districts with many schools and too many students.

Overcrowding isn't a problem only for the nation's large urban cities. Suburban school districts surrounding Atlanta, Georgia, and Washington, D.C., have also experienced rapid growth.

"There can be no dispute about the critical need to address school infrastructure needs across this country," said U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley in a statement about the proposed legislation. "This is a great step forward, and I truly appreciate the fact that these two leaders in the cause of school modernization have rolled up their sleeves and developed this pragmatic consensus legislation."

Diane Weaver Dunne
Education World®
Copyright © 2000 Education World

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