Most weeks I write about an environmental problem or solution that involves rural schools. However, this week I’ll look at the major infrastructure plan proposed by President Biden, and what school infrastructure challenges it seeks to address. A major infrastructure bill is considered long overdue in the U.S., with broad public support for one. However, passing one has proven politically difficult, and so we should keep in mind that even if it passes some changes are likely. That said, it is worth discussing its proposed and desperately needed investments in our school system.
The infrastructure of our schools is failing to meet the needs of America’s students. Indeed, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) just gave our schools a grade of D+ on it. That’s a grade that would concern any student, and it’s just below the (poor) national average of C-. Why? Because 53% of school districts need to update or replace multiple systems in their buildings, including critical HVAC systems. Meanwhile, one third of schools are forced to use portable buildings to meet capacity needs. And yet, state funding for schools dropped 31% between 2008 and 2017. This has resulted in an estimated $38 Billion annual funding gap for public schools. In addition to providing a learning space for our schoolchildren, schools often serve as community centers and shelters, an important role in the face natural disasters exacerbated by climate change. To meet all these needs, our schools urgently need investment in their buildings and systems. President Biden’s plan would provide $100 billion to build and upgrade public schools. It’s not entirely clear how this would be distributed, although it would roll out over 8 years. This investment would put a sizable dent into that estimated funding gap, although not offset it entirely.
School buildings are not the only infrastructure considerations important to our schoolchildren. The pandemic has demonstrated the importance of available and affordable broadband internet to students and their families. Even as we now return to in person schooling, it is ever more digitized. Around 25% of students do not have adequate broadband at home, which can make it much harder to do and turn in assignments or use zoom. This issue is a particular problem in rural areas, with 35% of rural homes not having adequate access. Under President Biden’s plan, 100 million would be spent to expand high speed broadband, with the goal to give every American affordable access to it. This would require incentivizing the rollout of broadband in rural areas, as well as subsidizing cost in some areas.
Another relevant issue is that of lead pipes. Many water systems continue to use lead pipes installed before they were banned. This has resulted in some high-profile problems like in Flint, Michigan in recent years. Since there is no safe limit for lead, it makes sense to ensure that our schoolchildren are not exposed to it. However, many school districts do not test for lead. Those that do find higher than recommended levels around 40% of the time. Completely replacing lead pipes could eliminate the problem entirely. Biden plans to do just that, with $45 billion earmarked for it, among other drinking water infrastructure problems.
President Biden’s plan would also spend money on several other issues that could impact rural schools. Of course, as an infrastructure plan it contains $115 Billion for roads and bridges, which will touch every community in America. It also includes $174 Billion for the electrification of transport, including implementing electric school buses as discussed in my previous article.
There is already considerable political wrangling over aspects of this proposed plan, particularly paying for it. The current proposal raises taxes for wealthy Americans and some corporate entities, but other options (like increased fuel taxes) have also been proposed. Either way, it is clear that such investment is sorely needed in our schools to ensure that we are meeting the needs of America’s students. This infrastructure plan could rebuild and protect our school infrastructure in the years to come.