Evans: Fixing Massive School-Repair Backlog Must Be Part of Infrastructure Plan

March 18, 2019
Press Release

Congressman Dwight Evans (PA-03), a member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, today spoke to the Council of the Great City Schools, which includes 74 of the nation’s largest urban public school systems. His speech can be viewed here, or as prepared for delivery, it follows:

“’Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.’

       -    James Baldwin, New York Times Book Review, January 14, 1962

“Good afternoon. Thank you, Dr. Hite, for that introduction. We live in the richest country in the history of the world. And yet we have schools that are in bad condition: Lead, mold, or asbestos -- or air conditioning or heating systems that aren’t up to the job, so schools close for days or even weeks.

“The size of the need is enormous, and it is urgent. In my city alone, it’s $4.5 billion. In just one American city.

“In 2014, a Department of Education study estimated that it would cost $197 billion to bring all public schools into good condition. The 2016 State of Our Schools Report determined there is an annual state and local spending gap of $46 billion on school facilities.

“School facilities still pose significant health and safety threats to more than 50 million students and 3 million teachers in public schools. A 1996 GAO Report — the most recent GAO study on this issue — determined that poor school facility conditions were concentrated in high-poverty schools serving minority students.

“The GAO found then that over 15,000 schools were circulating air unfit to breathe. According to a 2014 CDC survey, only 46.5 percent of schools have a program in place today to address indoor air quality issues. Our children deserve an equal shot at the future, regardless of their zip code.

“This is about what our values are as a country. What do we value?

“This is about what schools mean to America. We can address income inequality for the future. It starts with a quality education. Environments affect behavior. The school environment has to be good for students, teachers and staff – it has to be conducive to learning.

“Studies have shown that every dollar spent on quality early childhood education saves seven or more dollars later on, in the costs of social services and criminal justice spending. One dollar saves seven – show me a better return on investment than that! We need to set our children up to succeed, not to fail.

“I’m not aware of a similar study that directly addresses this in terms of school buildings and school environments, but I would expect that the results would be similar: Make a smart investment now to save more dollars later on.

“A good setting has to be built for the 21st century, which many of our school buildings are not. They are 70 or 100 years old.

“I’m reminded of a phrase from the landmark case Brown vs. Board of Education – the second time the Supreme Court ruled on that case, in 1955, it said desegregation was to proceed “with all deliberate speed.” Yet, here we are, 64 years later! American children are still learning – or trying to learn – in settings that are massively unequal. Children in lower-income school districts start from behind, and most of them never catch up. For all kids to compete, they have to have school facilities that allow them to compete.

“Probably no one in this room was surprised by the findings of a report last month from EdBuild, a New Jersey-based research and advocacy group that focuses on school funding. This report found that school districts that were overwhelmingly white received $23 billion more in state and local funding in 2016 than school districts that are predominantly nonwhite, even though they served about the same number of children. There is a role, and a need, for the federal government to address this inequality. A good place to start is something concrete and visible, like the condition of our school buildings.

“The question is not: Is there a problem? The question is: what do we do about it?

“Just last Thursday, the House Ways and Means Committee, on which I serve, held a public hearing with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

“In response to a question from Chairman Richard Neal, he said he had been talking with the president, and they are looking at a framework of $1.5 trillion for infrastructure. School buildings are a vital part of our infrastructure.

“I believe we have to be flexible and think differently. We have to look at using the tax structure. Republicans are often willing to join with Democrats to use tax credits to achieve goals like this. Tax credits are also important because they can draw in private actors.

“We have to adjust our thinking. I’ve been reading a book called The New Localism by Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak. It has a chapter titled Power Reimagined that goes into detail about this. They say that power is often in the private sector and at the local level. And that’s a major shift. At the same time, the federal government has a crucial role to play. Our kids need schools they can learn in. They don’t have time to wait.

“And when our schools are in disrepair, it affects their neighborhoods too. Schools are a key amenity for attracting and retaining people in neighborhoods. We have middle neighborhoods across this country that are on the brink of tipping either toward blight or growth. To transform these neighborhoods, school buildings have to be at the heart of it.

“Income inequality – it all starts with schools.

“So I’m happy to tell you about two bills in the House of Representatives that would address this. Both of them are in the committee that I serve on, Ways and Means, which deals with tax issues.

“Education and Labor Chairman Bobby Scott has introduced the Rebuild America's Schools Act, H.R. 865, which would use both grants and tax credit bonds. I have introduced a bill, the Rehabilitation of Historic Schools Act, H.R. 158, which would rely on wider use of an existing tax credit.

“Chairman Scott’s bill would create a $70 billion grant program and $30 billion tax credit bond program. The funding would be targeted at high-poverty schools with facilities that pose health and safety risks to students and staff. It would leverage federal, state, and local resources for an overall investment of $107 billion, creating over 1.9 million jobs.

“My own bill is partly inspired by a surprising source: a Trump hotel. Yes, really!

“President Trump used the rehabilitation tax credit to renovate an old post office here in D.C. into a fancy hotel. My thinking is: if that tax credit is good enough for his hotel, it’s good enough to fix up schools for our kids!

“My bill is the Rehabilitation of Historic Schools Act, which I have reintroduced as H.R. 158.

“I introduced it in the last session with Congressman Donald McEachin and Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, who are all from Virginia.

“Currently, the federal historic rehab tax credit program requires reuse of a building in a way that is different from its original function.  This restriction is what keeps local governments from partnering with private developers to rehabilitate schools. 

“A similar bill enacted in Virginia had bipartisan support. The renovation of Maggie L. Walker High School in Richmond, Virginia, built during the Depression, was transformed into a regional magnet school and enjoyed bipartisan regional support. Virginia has shown that it is possible and necessary to work together to help our young people succeed. It is foreseeable that there are tax-credit-eligible modernization projects nationwide. The program was a result of a successful state policy and it should be duplicated on a federal level. 

“My bill wouldn’t fix 100 percent of our schools, but it would be an important tool in the toolbox. Some of you are from red or purple states – I hope you all have your 2 senators and your U.S. representative on speed dial.

“As we push for greater federal investment in our school infrastructure, we also need to make sure the people trust us to use their tax dollars wisely. That’s important for making the program sustainable over the long term as power changes hands back & forth in Washington & the state capitals.

“A good model is the Obama economic stimulus program. With the exception of some alternative energy projects, you didn’t hear a lot about problems under the stimulus. There’s a reason for that: The Obama administration made a point of screening and monitoring the projects carefully. And President Obama put someone high-profile - Vice President Biden - in charge of it.

“There are 3 things that school repair financing should be to win support and keep support, whether it’s done entirely in the public sector, or with some amount of private involvement.

These 3 things have the initials A-R-T: Accountable, Responsible, Transparent.

“You could add a second T: Targeted. Making sure that the funding goes to the communities that need it most. You’ve probably read about questions about whether the federal opportunity zone tax incentives are being used for the neighborhoods that are most in need of a turnaround. We need to make sure that whatever school-repair legislation we design is targeted correctly. We need to get this right.

“I welcome your input on how we can get this right, and how we can get this DONE. Thank you!”

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Media Contact: Ben Turner, Ben.Turner@mail.house.gov