School Modernization: Where the Jobs Are

On Thursday night, President Obama will unveil his plan to reenergize job creation in the stagnant U.S. economy. Although the details of the reported $300 billion “American Jobs Act” won’t be known until then, the president is expected to propose a major investment in the nation’s infrastructure, including a fund to help modernize America’s school buildings – an idea strongly supported by the National Education Association.

In a letter sent to the White House this past Labor Day, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel urged the president to make infrastructure investment a key focus – along with direct financial aid to local governments to prevent further cuts in critical services – of his jobs plan.

“Educators are smart enough to learn lessons from history,” Van Roekel wrote in the letter, “and history has shown time and again that federal investments in infrastructure and other middle class job-creating initiatives is the fastest way to not only put Americans back to work, but to improve the country overall.”

On Tuesday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hinted strongly that education would be a prominent part of the president’s speech.

“Tens of billions of dollars are necessary for the repair of school buildings,” Duncan told reporters. “There’s tremendous need in rural, suburban areas.”

The backlog of much-needed repairs has been repeatedly delayed due to severe budget constraints. Today, students attend public schools that were built, on average, 40 years ago. Overcrowded buildings with leaky roofs, faulty electrical systems, and outdated technology are the standard in many communities. Construction and building repair could not only give a much-needed jolt to a depressed employment market but also could help boosts teaching and learning in these transformed buildings. Specifically, school modernization decreases overcrowding, safety and environmental concerns due to aging structures, and helps meet the demands of modern technology.

According to the 21st Century School Fund, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CPBB), an initial $50 billion school renovation program would employ 500,000 workers — a third of the 1.5 million construction workers now unemployed — and could be scaled up. Construction and building repair generally create 9,000-10,000 jobs per billion dollars spent. Eliminating just half the backlog in repairs and improvements would, over a period of years, create more than 2 million jobs.

The 21st Century School Fund, EPI and CPBB have proposed the Fix America’s Schools Today initiative (FAST!). In a nationally syndicated op-ed column, Jared Bernstein of CPBB, Mary Filardo of the 21st Century Fund and Ross Eisenbrey of EPI called the project a common-sense solution that accomplishes two critical goals and would be politically popular with the American public. So that the program doesn’t contribute to the deficit in the short term, they recommend closing gaping tax loopholes that benefit the oil and gas industries. Not only would this help reduce the cost but would compliment nicely with the energy-efficient buildings that would result from school repairs.

“FAST! is a smart infrastructure program that is fast-acting and labor intensive,” Bernstein told the Huffington Post. “It fits the criteria of a good bang for the buck.”