New Students, Old Schools Call for More Funding
Billups, Andrea, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
School officials in many areas of the country are grappling with the issue of how to pay for new facilities to keep up with burgeoning enrollment. Many are also struggling to finance renovation of aging structures and to modernize them to meet technology needs.
A record 52 million U.S. children attend 88,223 schools, and the average building is 42 years old. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that a third of those schools need to be replaced or heavily repaired, and 6,000 new schools must be built by 2006 to keep up with projected enrollment growth.
Several school construction and modernization bills are before Congress, where debate continues over what role, if any, the federal government should play in helping states and districts with their building needs.
Historically, school construction has been a state and local issue. But as weathered, overcrowded buildings begin to crumble and local funding can't keep pace with growth, many educators say the time has come for government to bridge the partisan divide and provide some much-needed relief.
President Clinton has touted a tax credit plan designed to draw investors to nearly $25 billion in bonds to help modernize as many as 6,000 schools.
Speaking before the American Institute of Architects on Wednesday, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley called on Congress to adopt legislation, sponsored by Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat, that would subsidize interest on school bond issues.
"We spend billions of federal dollars to build highways, to construct immaculate prisons, to fight beach erosion," Mr. Riley said. "Instead of building immaculate prisons to house illiterate prisoners, why not build immaculate schools that inspire our children to become literate citizens?"
Construction on 526 new schools was completed this year, and nationwide a record $17 billion-plus was spent on building and repair in the 1997-98 school year.
The need for more schools remains a pressing issue in Washington's own back yard. In Fairfax County, more than 14,000 students attend classes in portable trailers. School Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech has watched enrollment in his 156,000-student school system grow by 13,000 in just two years.
The county's property tax base is stagnant, however, and although voters approved a $260 million school bond referendum in 1997, that was not enough to keep up with construction needs. A $297 million bond referendum is up for a vote in November. …