Fixing schools, creating jobs

We’re doing a snap quiz today. Question: How can we improve education and the safety of students and teachers while helping to solve the nation’s #1 economic problem? Answer: Read on…

More than 1.2 million construction workers were out of work in August, and their unemployment rate is about 50 percent higher than the national average. Those numbers look  a little better than they did six months ago, but it’s not because construction firms are hiring. It’s because construction workers are finding jobs outside their industry or giving up their job search. Total construction employment is no higher today than it was a year ago, when the unemployment rate for construction and extraction workers was 16.3 percent.  Millions of years of experience are going to waste as these skilled workers sit idle.

Meanwhile, most of the nation’s 100,000 public schools need repairs, upgrades, and maintenance that have been deferred, sometimes for many years. These repairs are just the kind of work unemployed construction workers have the skills and experience to do — replacing boilers or faulty air conditioning systems, repairing broken tiles, removing or encasing asbestos, making electrical repairs and upgrades, replacing roofs and windows, and making security improvements.

School districts and state education agencies have long lists of deferred maintenance and repair projects. Washington state, for example, has listed $2 billion of projects in hundreds of schools, many of which could be started even while the kids are in school. New York City has a project list with a price tag exceeding $1 billion, which is no surprise when you take into account that some of the city’s schools are more than 100 years old.

The maintenance and repair backlog means inefficient energy use and higher utility costs, roof leaks that damage books and equipment, exposure to mold, asbestos, and fire dangers, and a sense among many schoolchildren and teachers that education really isn’t a local or national priority. And the problem is getting worse. The states and local governments have been hammered by the financial crisis, the recession, high unemployment and falling tax revenues. They have laid off hundreds of thousands of employees and cut back spending however they can. California, for example, has imposed $18 billion of budget cuts on the schools since the Great Recession began three years ago, leaving even less money to address deferred maintenance and repairs.

The only solution to nationwide problems of this magnitude and importance is federal intervention. Congress should enact a jobs program targeted at the infrastructure of our public schools. That program is FAST!, Fix America’s Schools Today, a $50 billion grant program I have proposed with Mary Filardo of the 21st Century School Fund and Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Using existing school aid formulas, Congress could allocate money to the 100 biggest school districts and the state education agencies to put people to work within a matter of weeks. Before winter hits, old, thermally inefficient windows could be replaced, insulation could be added to roofs, old boilers could be swapped out, and tens of thousands of construction workers could be back on the job. By next summer, hundreds of thousands of workers could be employed making improvements to facilities in every school district.

The great thing about this is that this work has to be done eventually, it’s overdue, and there’s no better time than the present to do it. Borrowing costs for the federal government are historically low, material costs are low, and contractors are eager to do the work. Many people say (wrongly) that they and their families never  benefited from the previous stimulus, and most people have trouble identifying anything that was accomplished. But this work will be highly visible and highly appreciated by the 64 million public school students and their families.

The high school my daughter attended was just renovated, six years too late for her.  But it gives me a sense of pride and confidence in the community to see the vastly improved facility and to know that future students will be safer and better served. Legislation like FAST! should have been enacted 10 years ago, but it’s better late than never.

Rumors abound that President Obama will recommend a program like FAST! in his jobs speech at the joint session of Congress on Thursday. If House Speaker John Boehner and his colleagues care about jobs and education, they’ll take him up on this win-win proposition.