Imagine Steve Jobs trying to design the next generation of tablet computers using mainframe hardware from the Eisenhower administration. Or American automakers trying to out-engineer foreign competitors on an assembly line with equipment from the 1960s.
Unfortunately, just such antiquated facilities and barriers to innovation exist today in precisely the institutions that can least afford it: our nation’s public schools. The digital age has now penetrated virtually every nook of American life, with the exception of many public schools.
The average public school building in the United States is more than 40 years old. Nationwide, cash-strapped school districts face an enormous $270 billion backlog of deferred maintenance and repairs.
On Tuesday, President Obama spoke at Abraham Lincoln High School in Denver about the need to urgently modernize public schools, and the importance of keeping teachers in the classroom, instead of in unemployment lines.
In the American Jobs Act, President Obama proposes to invest $30 billion to repair and modernize public schools and community colleges, putting hundreds of thousands of unemployed construction workers, engineers, boiler repairmen, and electrical workers back to work. He proposed an additional $30 billion to keep hundreds of thousands of educators facing potential layoffs and furloughs on the job.
Modernizing and repairing our schools is a classic win-win solution. It benefits everyone — children, communities, and construction workers who need work.
Tragically, children in the nation’s poorest school districts often attend schools with crumbling ceilings, overcrowded classrooms, and facilities that lack basic wiring infrastructure for computers and other modern-day technology. That’s no way to provide a world-class education — and in today’s global economy, a country that out-educates America will out-compete us.
Abraham Lincoln High School opened in 1960. Some of its science labs lack sinks — and have had only minor plumbing renovation in the last 51 years. Despite district and school efforts to upgrade equipment and software, the school’s computer lab — like many in the Denver Public Schools — is not designed to support small-group learning and the acquisition of 21st century skills.
Denver Public Schools has already identified $425 million in major repair and modernization projects districtwide that could be started within the next year, from replacing aging boilers and leaking roofs to improving educational technology.
This is not a partisan issue. The physical conditions at some aging schools today are unacceptable. They are no place for children to learn.
The president’s jobs bill would modernize at least 35,000 schools, or about one out of every three public schools in the United States. In Colorado, the jobs bill would provide $265 million to put as many as 3,400 construction workers back on the job modernizing Colorado’s schools. Denver Public Schools alone would receive up to $75.5 million.
Nationwide, $25 billion would go to upgrading existing public school facilities (including charter schools), with $5 billion invested in modernizing community colleges. The federal government will not fund new construction or pick the schools to modernize. Those decisions will be left entirely to states and districts with knowledge of local needs.
Projections from proposals similar to the president’s plan suggest it could create as many as 300,000 jobs in the construction trades nationwide.
While modernization could put a small army of Americans back to work rebuilding and upgrading our schools, looming teacher layoffs could have a devastating impact in the classroom.
As many as 280,000 education jobs may be on the chopping block in the upcoming school year due to multibillion-dollar state and local budget shortfalls. But under the jobs bill, Colorado would receive $478 million to support and protect up to 7,000 educator jobs.
As the bar for educational success rises worldwide in the knowledge economy, this is no time to be laying off scores of teachers and early childhood educators.
Already, financially pinched school districts are reducing class time, shortening the school calendar, cutting after-school programs and early childhood education, and reducing top-notch arts and music instruction.
President Obama recently shared the story of Jason Chuong, a Philadelphia music teacher who uses plastic buckets to teach his students to play percussion — because he only has a $100 out-of-pocket budget to cover music instruction at seven schools.
The path to prosperity, the way to win the future, is to invest wisely in schools, remembering that children get only one chance at an education.
That’s why the president’s plan to modernize our schools for the 21st century and minimize teacher layoffs is the right plan, at the right time. We cannot afford to do less.
Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education.
The following op-ed appeared in the Denver Post on September 28.