The United States General Accounting Office (GAO) sent the country a wake-up call with its final report last month on the state of America's crumbling schools. The message: Rebuild our education infrastructure now, or deal with the effects of deferred maintenance on children's education and our country's competitiveness for another generation.
The two-year GAO study documents the neglect and disrepair of schools at the elementary and secondary levels, pointing out that crumbling schools are a national problem affecting cities, suburbs, and rural areas.
Approximately one-third of the country's school buildings are ripe for replacement, and up to 70 percent in some areas have identifiable flaws that negatively affect the learning environment, such as leaking roofs, faulty or inadequate electrical wiring, falling plaster, and rusty plumbing. The GAO estimates that $112 billion is needed to get schools into simply "good" condition.
How to finance these repairs is where the argument heats up. Because of the tradition of local control of elementary and secondary schools, the federal government has been only marginally involved in funding education at that level. Despite recent efforts to help defray the costs of educating poor children, the share of costs paid at the federal level today is less than 7 percent. It has never been more than 10 percent.
Most of the financing for repairs comes from a local funding base, principally the property tax, which is increasingly incapable of supporting opportunities for quality education. Property wealth is an inelastic tax base. It creates gross disparities in the amounts individual school districts can raise, and it is so strained that costs associated with programs and salaries consistently crowd out money for maintenance, repair, rebuilding, and replacement of infrastructure and facilities. State governments, which share in varying degrees the responsibility for financing education, invested $3.5 billion for facility repair nationwide in 1994 - only 3 percent of the need reported by the GAO.
The Education Infrastructure Act, which became law in 1994 but remains unfunded by Congress, suggests a new paradigm for education finance - one that recognizes both fiscal realities and the importance of quality education.
President Clinton and I recently proposed a $5 billion interest subsidy to help local school districts float bond issues to rebuild. By engaging federal financial support for the specific task of school construction and repair, we can bring national resources to the challenge of preparing our children for the 21st century.
Our students will need computers and the technology to run them, as well as sound buildings in which to use them, if they are to acquire the "capital" that education represents. The US can't compete if our children can't learn, and our students can't learn if their schools are falling down.
Federal help to rebuild our elementary schools means everybody wins: Children, teachers, and school officials enjoy a better environment for learning and teaching; local taxpayers win a reprieve from further debt; and state and local governments get an opportunity to improve their schools and educational systems in general.
The "Tower of Babel" approach to school funding must be replaced with a cooperative model in which national, state, and local governments each play a role in helping communities educate our children. Just about every candidate for office runs on an education platform.
Isn't it time to put some mortar on the brick?
*Carol Moseley-Braun (D) is a US Senator from Illinois.