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April 23, 2021

My Turn, Francis Koster: Don’t waste crisis, fix schools

By Francis Koster

Our economy is headed for a catastrophe much larger than the recession of 2008. 

It will take several years to recover from it. The federal government will take a number of steps to help with recovery. The first step, called the CARES Act, was signed by President Trump on March 27. It allocated $2 trillion dollars in federal assistance — mostly to offer economic relief to those individuals and companies under great stress in the short term.

There will be at least one more piece of federal legislation, but it will be different from the first one because it will be designed to be an economic stimulus.

After the 2007-2008 economic collapse, there were also two major bills signed. The first, abbreviated TARP, was the rescue portion. Most of it went to keep banks from failing. The second was the called the Recovery Act and was designed to rebuild the damaged economy.

In both of these economic collapses, think of the first federal action as the ambulance rescuing someone needing healthcare and the second one (Congress is working on it now) as paying for physical therapy — a long slow painful process. Or think of the first one as paying for the guns to fight a war and the second one as paying to repair all the bombed buildings.

As our crisis unfolds, it is this second piece of legislation being prepared now that can be used to solve a major problem in our nation’s schools. One-half of all of America’s K-12 schools are over 45 years old. Many others have obsolete and expensive to operate lighting and air conditioning systems.  

Scientific research has demonstrated that poor indoor environments lower student performance by one or two letter grades. These scientists have taught us that fixing obsolete buildings would be a huge help.

In most states, K-12 schools are paid for by two funding sources. Teacher and administrator salaries are paid for by state taxes, with every school getting an equal amount per student (although richer school districts have the ability to add money on top of that). Building construction and maintenance costs are paid for by local taxes. Poor communities have old buildings.

According to a massive survey by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, one-half of the nation’s 115,000 K-12 schools have indoor air quality problems. Parents and teachers in those older buildings are blamed for below average student performance when it is the building itself that is a major contributor.

Twelve years ago, The Recovery Act (the second bill passed by Congress to fight the recession of 2007-2009) spent $24.4 billion to repair or rebuild a small portion of the 100,000 school buildings across the county. It also spent $105.3 billion (more than 5 times as much) fixing federal and state government buildings, public roads, bridges, mass transit and other physical property.

One in five Americans either works in or attends one of our local K-12 schools — around 60 million of our friends and neighbors. 

If everyone reading this would call or write their elected officials and insist that a substantial amount of the stimulus bill now being drafted be aimed at fixing our ancient schools, it would have the same economic impact as the amount money spent again on roads, or bridges — but it would raise the learning, health, and prosperity of more than half of the students and teachers in the country.

Let’s not waste this crisis. Let’s get on it.

Francis Koster lives in Kannapolis and is a local activist who has been studying, teaching and implementing local solutions to national problems for over 50 years.

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