As young people begin their trek back to school this fall, too many of them will be going to crowded and run-down classrooms. A full third of all public schools use portable classrooms. One-fifth have less than adequate safety features, including leaky roofs and spotty electrical power. Three-quarters of all schools say they need to spend money on repairs, renovation and modernization to bring school buildings into good overall condition.
We adults axe fond of saying we believe that children are the future, and politicians are great at turning education into a campaign issue. But when I read a recent report from the National Center for Educational Statistics about crowded and dilapidated schools, I had to wonder when some of these politicians last spent time in a public school. If any of them would drop by, perhaps they would be more willing to consider legislation that would create $24.8 billion in school construction bonds. Instead, Republicans say this is a "bricks and mortar approach" to education and prefer to focus on school vouchers.
Even if we passed national legislation authorizing vouchers today, the overwhelming majority of our nation's children would still attend public schools. This fall, enrollment is projected at an all-time high level of 53 million children, and 47 million of these children attend public schools. Granted, public schools aren't perfect, but the structural imperfections are glaring proof of how little we think of our young people. How many of us would choose to go to offices so dilapidated?
Then there is the matter of crowding. In Los Angeles, the second largest school system in the country is projecting a shortfall of 85,900 desks in the next six years. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, "Already, in some classrooms, there are twice as many children as there are desks." Political battles about busing aside, 15,000 schoolchildren ride buses each day because there is no room for them in their home schools.
There are crowded schools everywhere. But inner cities and rural areas have alarming challenges. More than three-quarters of all rural schools need to be repaired or modernized. Almost half had unsatisfactory environmental conditions. More than 30 percent report inadequate heating, ventilation and air conditioning. And because so many rural areas have declining tax bases, it is difficult to renovate rural schools.
It makes no sense that we fund schools from local property tax dollars, because that is simply a way of perpetuating patterns of poverty. The poorest areas tend to have the lowest tax bases, but also need the greatest amount of educational remediation if their students are to have a shot at productive lives. President Clinton's school modernization legislation goes a short way toward dealing with some of these issues, but in the long run an "education president" would talk about ways that federal funding could strengthen the quality of local schools across the board, not simply in the area of repairs and modernization. …