09/20/2011 11:52 am ET | Updated Nov 20, 2011

What We Can Learn by Investing in Our Schools

As part of his efforts to stimulate a slow economy, President Obama has called for $30 billion to rehabilitate schools and community college facilities. Republicans, like the representative from my state, John Kline, Chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, have already -- and predictably -- denounced it. "Putting the federal government in the business of school construction," says Kline, "will only lead to higher costs and more regulations" -- even though the federal government has been involved in supporting school construction since at least the 1930s. And even the staunchest advocates of such an investment, like major teacher's organizations, seem skeptical that this part of the jobs plan, at least without some alteration, will pass Congress.

Too bad because this investment in our schools could do so much more for us than just create, over the short-term, many badly needed jobs. Fixing leaky roofs and upgrading leaky windows have immediate, pragmatic value. As architects and contractors know, the more we let such problems go unchecked in buildings, the more expensive the repair, to the point where too much damage can make even expensive new construction less costly. Add to that the fact that rehabilitation often creates more jobs than new construction, and certainly more than what Obama's opponents in Congress seem ready to do -- nothing at all -- and we can see what a missed opportunity it would be to pass up a chance to fix our schools when, in a depressed economy, our money may never go this far again.

That may be because we have not gone far enough in our thinking about this. We could pay for this work without another penny of Federal money, were we to see schools and the value they bring to communities more broadly. A workshop is scheduled for the end of October in Washington D.C. that will bring together the school design community with those in public health focused on the childhood obesity epidemic, to discuss ways we educate and encourage school kids to eat healthier and burn more calories. Sponsored by the National Collaborative on Childhood Obesity Research, the National Academy of Environmental Design, and the U.S. Green Building Council, the gathering will show how much potential exists for schools to serve as centers for good health in our communities.

Some may call this socialism, although how is learning good nutrition any different from learning proper English, or getting more exercise any different from getting more study time? I call this opportunism. We could repair our schools and pay for it out of the enormous savings we could achieve by reducing the disease and the attendant health care costs we have already begun to experience with an increasingly obese population. Funneling a tiny fraction of the billions of dollars we would save would more than pay for the improvements to schools this would require.

That raises a second possible way of paying for fixing our schools. Both the administration and its Republican critics have, at least so far, mostly talked about schools as traditionally defined: places where teachers educate school-aged children during the school day and over the school year. Largely missing from the discussion has been the rolls schools can play in communities the rest of the time -- the evenings, weekends, and summers when these facilities sit mostly empty and underutilized.

We should use the proposed investment in school buildings not only to enhance the learning environment for school-aged children, but to equip these structures for what they could become: places that can help us revitalize local economies, upgrade people's skills, and increase a community's resilience and competitiveness. That, of course, already happens to some extent in schools, with continuing education classes and personal enrichment programs. But these remain at the margins in most places and generally engage only a small percentage of their populations.

We need, instead, to see how our local schools could serve as centers of intensive, life-long teaching and learning on the part of almost everyone in a community. We can no longer afford to have these buildings dark most of the time, nor can we afford to have so many Americans so ill equipped to compete in the global economy -- fluency in Mandarin, anyone? -- and to address the global challenges we face -- have you seen the movie Contagion yet? Thought of this way, school rehabilitation would not only provide short-term jobs for construction companies, but long-term career opportunities for the all of the citizens of a community.

How might we pay for such an expansion in educational offerings and how do we get people to take them? One answer: see everyone in the community as a possible teacher as well as a learner. Even the smallest or most impoverished communities have an incredible wealth of human assets, people with skills, knowledge, and talent that remains largely untapped and often unknown by their neighbors. Communities could, for example, have a barter system of education, in which everyone gets to take a class in something they don't know if they volunteer to teach a class in something they do well.

Or if that sounds too "socialist," then tie the funding of the school to the social and economic benefits its 24/7 use bring to a community, or to the reduced expenditures on the costs that come with social dysfunction and economic decline, like crime, poverty, and unemployment aid. We must invest in our schools, not just for the sake of our school-aged children, but also for the health, wealth, and well being of everyone. And we do not have to fund this investment only through the Federal government. A well-educated, highly skilled, fully employable population will save so much money in other areas and generate so much more income that feeding even a portion of that back to our schools will more than meet the need. Once we start this process, we may well wonder why we waited so long.

Thomas Fisher is Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota.