It's no secret that the infrastructure of America's schools is largely unsafe and outdated. The pandemic has highlighted the need for better ventilation systems, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. According to a 2016 report, we should be investing about 33 percent more annually to keep U.S. schools in good repair.
In June 2020, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report on the state of school infrastructure. GAO's analysts concluded that more than 54 percent of U.S. school districts need to replace or upgrade major systems in over half of their facilities. For instance, HVAC systems must be replaced or upgraded in a staggering 36,000 school buildings.
The U.S. Department of Education once estimated that it would cost $200 billion to bring all schools to a desirable condition. This was in 2013, and the last decade has not been good for school infrastructure. In 2020, the Learning Policy Institute estimated that it would cost $72 billion to improve ventilation systems in schools nationwide.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes $500 million in funding for energy efficiency upgrades in schools. The administration's original infrastructure bill promised $100 billion for building new schools. Lawmakers who supported Biden's bill still hope to pass the Reopen and Rebuild America's Schools Act, which would allocate significant funding to school upgrades and new school construction.
As politicians fight in Washington to see whose vision will prevail, American children are suffering. Schools in low-income areas are consistently in need of urgent repairs. The quality of school infrastructure directly impacts student health and performance. This is no longer the land of opportunity.
U.S. Schools in Dire Need of Upgrades
Problems like mold, lead in drinking water, polluted air, and extreme heat are rampant in K-12 schools all over the nation. Studies have shown that these types of environments are not conducive to learning.
Percentages of school districts where at least half of the schools need system repairs and replacements:
- HVAC systems - 41 percent
- Interior light fixtures - 28 percent
- Roofing - 28 percent
- Safety and security - 27 percent
- Structural integrity - 13 percent
- Environmental conditions - 9 percent
According to numerous reports, U.S. schoolchildren are exposed to shocking amounts of toxic metals. In 2018, Detroit shut down over 100 schools for a full year after detecting alarming levels of copper and lead in drinking water. That same year, a Harvard study found that nearly half of schools nationwide had at least one sample with a lead concentration categorized as dangerous by local authorities.
Natural disasters also affect American schoolchildren, with a disproportionate impact on low-income school districts due to their less resilient infrastructure. How can we expect our nation's children to thrive in this scenario?
In September 2020, three Pennsylvania school officials were charged with felony child endangerment after ignoring repeated warnings about lead and asbestos contamination in schools. In West Philadelphia, Cassidy Elementary School was described by journalists as "one of the most toxic public schools in the city due to elevated lead and asbestos levels." Approximately 2,700 Philadelphia schoolchildren test positive for toxic levels of lead every year.
According to the Center for Public Integrity and the Center for Investigative Reporting, thousands of U.S. schools are dangerously close to high-traffic roads and highways. This results in 4.4 million students being exposed to toxic hydrocarbons known to "stunt lung growth, trigger asthma attacks, contribute to heart disease, and raise the risk of cancer." For this reason, it is illegal to build a school within 500 feet of freeways in the State of California.
Underground Pollution in School Campuses
When populations grow, and new schools are needed, inadequate budgets can lead to disastrous consequences. Certain school districts have opted for repurposing industrial sites as school campuses without previously assessing air and ground pollution.
The Los Angeles Unified School District knew that there was toxic contamination in the site chosen to build Jefferson New Middle School, but it went ahead with its plans. The school opened in 1998. It was built on a site that was once described as a "reservoir of hexavalent chromium."
The soil on which the school was built was tainted with carcinogens. Hexavalent chromium is known to cause asthma, liver damage, pulmonary edema, and lung cancer, among other severe conditions. The same pollutant led Erin Brockovich to blow the whistle in 1996, resulting in a $333 million settlement with a utility company.
Jefferson New Middle School was sitting on the former site of Hard Chrome Products, an electroplating company whose processes had one infamous byproduct: hexavalent chromium. According to inspectors, "the groundwater at the Jefferson site proved to have the highest concentrations of hex chrome ever discovered in California."
There had been other companies working with chrome on the new school's site. Litigation would eventually reveal that there were two tanks full of carcinogenic trichlorethylene beneath the school, and they were leaking poison 152 feet below ground surface.
Despite these findings, the school district failed to assess the site for toxic hazards. It would later come to light that hex chrome was present in many other LA schools. This is just one example of how America is failing to protect children and provide safe learning environments.
Without adequate budgets, school districts look for the cheapest land they can find, and many times, it turns out to be heavily polluted land.
The Future of School Infrastructure
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave school infrastructure a D+ in 2021. ASCE's report emphasizes the importance of upgrading HVAC systems, the deteriorated state of outdoor features, the poor quality of the air our children are breathing, and the significant decrease in funding over the last decade.
ASCE stated that maintaining existing school buildings in good condition would cost $58 billion, and it would cost another $77 million to make all the necessary upgrades as systems and equipment reach the end of their useful lives.
The schools of the future must be resilient and ready to withstand floods, earthquakes, and high winds. That is not the case today. As weather conditions become more extreme, we have to ensure that our children are safe. It is also important to note that schools are often used as emergency shelters, and this makes their safety even more crucial. A proper school should feature structures that will not crumble in the event of an earthquake or a tornado.
The next generation of Americans deserves a great education, but we will not be able to provide it if school buildings are hot in the summer and freezing in winter, if the air within them is unbreathable, and the water our children drink carries toxic substances. Every existing plan to fix America's failing schools falls short of the hundreds of billions of dollars the task would truly require. But we have to start somewhere. And the time to do it is now.