Mary Filardo of the 21st Century School Fund helped with this post.
On October 12, Senators Webb and Warner introduced a bill to rehabilitate the nation's historic schools. According to their press release, this proposal is also supported by Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, and U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
My FAST! colleagues and I were very happy to see this bipartisan support for fixing up our public school buildings. Like they say, the first step towards fixing a problem is recognizing the problem and taking responsibility for it.
We worry, however, that their plan is too limited in scope. This limits the impact both in terms of jobs and school modernization.
Fix America's Schools Today (FAST!) -- introduced by Senator Sherrod Brown (S. 1597) and Congresswoman Rosa De Lauro (H.B. 2948) like the president's plan, would provide grants for repair and modernization directly to state education agencies and local school districts by formula, accounting for need. The resources would get out the door quickly, and repair projects would ramp up right away. With FAST thousands of schools can be repaired and modernized and nearly 250,000 jobs can be created.
The Senators' plan -- The Historic Schools Rehabilitation Tax Credit -- is a bit more complicated.
Their plan offers developers, states, and school districts a federal tax credit to enter into public/private partnerships to help pay for modernization of schools that are on the National Register of Historic places.
Private partners would need to purchase the historic public school and then lease it back to the school district. As part of the sale-lease-back agreement they would modernize the historic schools using the incentive of the federal tax credit to reduce the overall cost.
We applaud the Senators for recognizing the intersection of need and opportunity here -- the need to fix our schools and the opportunity to get folks back to work making the repairs.
However, unlike FAST!, the tax credit program is too small and too slow. There are few public schools already on the National Register of Historic places -- maybe in the hundreds (we're working on an accurate count). The policies, approvals, and agreements needed for school districts to enter into developer partnerships adds a level of complexity that will limit the impact on both school repairs and jobs. And poorer school districts just won't be able to make use of a tax credit -- they need a grant to make these repairs.
School repair and modernization marries two problems -- the need to fix our public schools and sky-high unemployment among the folks who do the work -- into one solution. And we're talking here about fixing up one of the most important institutions in our communities: the public schools. So while we're especially happy to see bipartisan support for this idea, we want to be sure to implement a plan that going to make a real dent in the problem.
We urge lawmakers to consider the limitations noted above, and support FAST! Barring that, there may be ways to help this new variation address some of the limitations we raise above. For example, Congress could temporarily designate all public schools older than, say, 50 years (that's the average age of our schools) as historic places for this bill.
Whatever it takes, let's make this work...and FAST!