WASHINGTON – Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) on Wednesday introduced legislation that would invest $100 billion in crumbling public school infrastructure that he says is hurting students’ ability to learn.
Introduced on the 63rd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Rebuild America’s Schools Act and the Equity and Inclusion Act was crafted partly in response to a 2016 Government Accountability Office report finding that poor and minority students don’t have “full access” to educational opportunities compared to predominantly white schools. Scott’s office contended that the GAO report shows that American public schools are “re-segregating by race and class.”
“No child should learn, and no teacher should teach, in an unsafe or dilapidated learning environment,” Scott said in a statement Wednesday. “We know that poor school facility conditions impact teaching and learning and disproportionately plague schools that serve low-income and minority students.”
Scott pointed to a 2014 Department of Education study estimating that it will cost $197 billion to “bring all public schools into good condition.” Substandard infrastructure is a health and safety hazard to more than 50 million students and 3 million teachers, Scott added.
The GAO report, published in April 2016, found that the number of schools with poor populations, mostly black and Hispanic, increased from 9 percent to 16 percent between 2000 and 2014, based on Department of Education data. About 75 to 100 percent of the student bodies at these schools were eligible for subsidized lunch offerings, which the GAO referred to as “a commonly used indicator of poverty.” Further, GAO analysis showed that these schools offered fewer classes focused on math, science and college preparation.
Citing a 2006 Building Education Success Together report, Scott’s office provided statistics last week that show predominantly white schools “spend nearly 50 percent more on capital construction than those serving minority students, and wealthy districts spend nearly triple their high-poverty counterparts on capital construction.”
Gerard Robinson, an African-American education policy fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said in an interview Wednesday that there are challenges, but the public school system is not segregated like it was 63 years ago. A Republican and former secretary of education for the state of Virginia, Robinson noted that there are hundreds of predominantly minority schools that the Department of Education has recognized in its National Blue Ribbon Schools Program, which distributes awards for academic performance.
The term segregation, Robinson said, is very real to lawmakers like Rep. Scott and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who co-sponsored the legislation, “because they grew up at a time where they actually saw the segregation that Brown was fighting against.” But Robinson said the makeup of schools is the result of the communities that surround them.
“To say that 63 years later, if my children are in a public school, and somehow the kids have to look like them, that somehow that’s a decision of Jim Crow just basically says that you failed in 63 years to do something, and that’s simply not the case,” Robinson said.
Robinson commended the proposal to provide greater funding for public school infrastructure, noting that the system needs to work well because the majority of American students attend public schools. He suggested identifying high-poverty, high-performing Blue Ribbon schools, spending the money at those institutions and allowing the lessons learned to “spill over into the traditional public school system.”
The issue should be addressed using an education-focused approach, not an approach that emphasizes color-coding, Robinson said, adding that the money needs to be well-spent. He discussed Washington, D.C., which spends more money per student than the vast majority of states across the country. According to 2013 U.S. Census Bureau data, the district’s $17,953 in spending per pupil ranked No. 3 behind New York ($19,818) and Alaska ($18,175). Yet D.C.’s 69 percent graduation rate in 2016 falls well short of the national average, which was recorded around 82 percent in 2014. Still, the district’s 2016 rate marked a five-point improvement from the previous school year.
“In the District of Columbia, we have seen school renovation and redevelopment have a major impact on the lives of students,” Norton Holmes said in a statement. “The Rebuild America’s Schools Act would help ensure that we are meeting all the digital and physical infrastructure needs of students and teachers, which will improve student academic achievement.”