The Advocate May 2022: Biden Administration Focuses on Building Better Schools

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The Advocate May 2022: Biden Administration Focuses on Building Better Schools

The health of our school buildings has long been a major problem. The 2021 State of Our Schools Report from the 21st Century School Fund estimates that the U.S. is underinvesting in school buildings and grounds by $85 billion each year.

The COVID-19 pandemic focused considerable attention on the importance of ensuring we have well-ventilated schools, but air quality is merely one key aspect of healthy buildings. Over the past decade, states and federal agencies have tried to incentivize districts to address a variety of key school facilities issues such as lead in water, PCBs in light bulbs and asbestos. The Biden Administration is now shifting its focus to expand beyond these issues to the environment health of our planet and the role schools can play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

On April 4, the Biden Administration announced its Action Plan for Building Better School Infrastructure to “upgrade our public schools with modern, clean, energy efficient facilities and transportation—delivering health and learning benefits to children and school communities, saving school districts money, and creating good union jobs.”

As part of this plan, there are new grant programs available to districts to upgrade their buildings and transportation systems. Notably absent from this announcement is any new, dedicated federal funding for school infrastructure, a major priority for AASA during the Build Back Better negotiations that fell apart last year. Instead, the Administration is tapping money that passed through the bipartisan infrastructure bill to issue competitive grants to “advance solutions including energy efficiency retrofits, electric school buses, and resilient design” in schools. 

Specifically, in May, the EPA will roll out applications for its $5 billion electric school bus rebate program. AASA has a detailed blog post about the grant program and how districts can apply. There are already steps districts can take to prepare for the grant application as detailed here. This unprecedented influx of funding provides an opportunity for many districts to begin the process of electrifying their school bus fleets and reducing operating expenses for school transportation. In addition, there is a $500 million grant program to make public schools more energy efficient. The grant program is not expected to open until the summer and further details for this program are available here

Taken together, these grant programs represent a well-intentioned desire by the Biden Administration to help districts transition to cleaner, greener technology and improve energy efficiency. That said, it is far from the investment the federal government should be making to upgrade our school facilities and ensure equitable learning opportunities for every student. 

Based on our AASA survey data, we know many districts are planning to spend American Rescue Plan funds on upgrading HVAC systems, replacing roofs, carpets, windows and upgrading buildings. We are also aware that many are hesitant to sign or finalize contracts given supply chain issues, inflation, labor supply issues and other logistical issues. That’s why we are continuing to press Secretary Cardona to offer districts additional time to spend ARP funding on these projects and we are expecting Department of Education guidance outlining an extended timeline for liquidating ARP funds later this month. Without a standalone new federal school infrastructure program, the ARP funds are the best opportunity many superintendents have to make a dent towards the $85 billion a year we should be spending to update our facilities. 

One other funding opportunity around school facilities is through the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds program, a $350 billion program for state and local governments included in ARP. On April 27, the Treasury Department issued guidance specifically outlining how this funding can be used to build out school infrastructure. While governors and state legislatures are in charge of how this funding is spent, superintendents should consider lobbying them to allocate some of this funding towards rebuilding crumbling school facilities.