FAST! Fix Americas Schools Today: An Infrastructure Program to Repair Our Nation's Public Schools

The average U.S. public school building is over 40 years old, and many are much older. The cost of maintaining nearly 100,000 public schools and facilities in good repair is enormous. According to GAO and the American Society of Civil Engineers, school districts have been under-spending on maintenance and repair for many years. Chronic deferred maintenance and repair can lead to energy inefficiencies, unsafe drinking water, water damage and moldy environments, poor air quality, inadequate fire alarms and fire safety, compromised building security and structural dangers.

By conservative estimates there is an accumulated backlog of deferred maintenance and repair amounting to at least $270 billion. Including the cost to "green-up" existing schools, and using less conservative assumptions, the cost of needed improvements to buildings and systems probably exceeds $500 billion.

State and local governments and school districts have been hammered financially by the Great Recession, laying off hundreds of thousands of employees and cutting budgets. Most school districts do not have resources to address the maintenance and repair backlog, let alone to make energy conservation and efficiency improvements.
 
An Opportunity

A national project to address this backlog could create hundreds of thousands of jobs for construction workers and building technicians, from boiler repairmen and electrical workers to roofers, plumbers, glaziers, painters and plasterers, and laborers and tile setters. It could also lead to the direct hire of building maintenance workers to help slow or prevent the deterioration of buildings and building systems, while generating new savings through energy conservation.

Construction and building repair generally create 9,000 to 10,000 jobs per billion dollars spent, so eliminating even half of the entire backlog and improvements could eventually create about over 2 million jobs, over a period of years. Addressing even one-tenth of the needed improvements could immediately create half a million jobs.
 
Given the grim outlook for residential construction and the fact that 1.5 million construction workers are unemployed, a project of this magnitude that would re-employ hundreds of thousands of construction workers would have a large positive effect on the economy.
 
It would also improve teacher and student morale, boost student achievement and improve the health and safety of school communities. There is consistent evidence that providing a quality physical environment for teaching and learning improves student performance. Quality teachers are attracted to and remain in better facilities, attendance for students and teachers is improved and students are healthier and can concentrate and learn better in quality buildings. Investing in school maintenance and repair can support our nation’s efforts to dramatically improve the results of our public education system.
 
How This Project Would Work

We view FAST! as a “dialable” program, meaning it could scaled up or back based on available resources.

The fastest way to stand the program up would be to add money to existing funding formulas, such as ESEA title I. All 16,000 public school districts, including public charter schools, receive funds under Title I, so $50 billion, for example, could be allocated among them, yielding an average allocation of about $500,000 per building, which, in a 40-year-old building, could support some, but not all of the improvements listed below.

Districts would be required to use federal funds for deferred maintenance, repairs and component or system replacements to existing facilities or to supplement their current maintenance and repair efforts, so public school buildings and grounds are operated in a healthy and efficient manner.

The funds would be used for:
  • Improving air quality and thermal comfort with improvements to HVAC systems;
  • Stopping interior damage, including mold, and reducing energy costs with roof replacement and repair;
  • Supporting technology, mechanical systems and modern use of electricity with an electrical system modernization;
  • Reducing water consumption, eliminating lead in water, meeting ADA requirements with bathroom and plumbing upgrades;
  • Eliminating allergy and asthma triggers, making sure asbestos is contained or eliminated, and creating inviting classroom and school environments with plaster repair and painting;
  • Saving energy and increasing daylight with window replacement;
  • Improving the school grounds with improvements to outdoor learning and play areas, storm water management, landscaping and environmental clean-up;
  • Reducing ongoing heating costs with energy-efficient boiler replacement;
  • Installation of solar panels, wind generators, geothermal or other comparable clean energy generators; and
  • The planning for this work and any similar modifications necessary to reduce the consumption of electricity and energy, especially fossil fuels, including natural gas, oil, water or coal.
Any other usage of funds would be impermissible.

Details/Options

High-Need Areas: Each of the 100 largest high-need Local Education Agencies (LEAs) receives a formula amount similar to what it received under Part A of Title I (roughly one third of total) within 30 days of enactment.

Remainder to State Educational Agencies (SEAs) within 30 days of enactment per a formula amount similar to what remaining districts would have received under Part A of Title I. No district should receive less than $10,000.

Other than administrative funds, SEAs must distribute 100 percent of these remaining funds to LEAs in the form of competitive grants according to eligibility rules based on: 
  1. percentage of poor children,
  2. need for school repair and renovation,
  3. limited LEA fiscal capacity,
  4. estimate of new jobs or extra hours created by the project and
  5. estimate of energy savings.
No match required.

States may use up to 1 percent of their grant for SEA administration, monitoring and reporting on FAST, but may use up to 2 percent of funds if they agree to establish and support a state-level database of public school facility inventory, condition, design and utilization.

Local districts may use up to 2 percent of their grant for administrative and oversight costs.

SEAs and LEAs shall use FAST funds to supplement and not to supplant state and local funds for school maintenance and repair that would be made available in the absence of Federal funds.
LEAs must report to the SEA as each project is completed — including a description of:
  • location, name, building size, site size and age of school;
  • project justification;
  • type and description of work completed;
  • actual cost of work by project;
  • sources of funding (share and amount of federal, state or local funds used);
  • additional hires and hours that were used to complete the repairs; and
  • anticipated energy or natural resource savings.
“Buy American” provisions should apply to materials purchased for and paid for by the FAST! program. Davis-Bacon rules apply.

We recommend that FAST be paid for by eliminating fossil fuel preferences as in President Obama’s FY2012 budget. Closing these loopholes raises $46 billion over 10 years.

Contact the authors: Mary Filardo, 21st Century School Fund, Jared Bernstein, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and Ross Eisenbrey, Economic Policy Institute.

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