Obama's school patchwork project

President-elect wants to repair and modernize schools for the 21st century. But experts worry the plan is too small and short-sighted.

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By David Goldman, CNNMoney.com staff writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- President-elect Barack Obama has proposed an ambitious plan to rebuild the nation's crumbling schools as a part of his economic stimulus package, aiming to help budget-constrained school districts make much needed repairs.

The current stimulus bill facing a House vote includes as much as $120 billion for public school systems, $14 billion of which would go to fix leaky roofs and boilers, install new windows and bring buildings up to a level of acceptable repair. A billion dollars would also go to modernize classrooms, providing students access to 21st century technology, like broadband Internet, computers and state-of-the-art lab facilities.

The aim: provide a positive educational environment for students and teachers and create new jobs. But it likely won't be enough to achieve either goal.

The state of the country's 97,000 public school buildings is dire. They are overcrowded, use outdated technology and are in great disrepair, especially in the nation's poorest communities. Somewhere between $100 billion and $360 billion is needed to repair and modernize schools, according to various estimates.

"There is a huge backlog of public school repair projects," said Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute. "The need is gigantic and almost everywhere - few school districts don't have a maintenance backlog."

Over the past few years, and especially in the more current challenging economic times, budgets have been strained and school districts have had to make cuts. As schools trim non-essential expenses, they have slashed their maintenance budgets from about 12% to 9% of their total expenses. The cutbacks were exacerbated, some say, by class-size reductions mandated in the No Child Left Behind laws.

"Class-size reduction had the biggest impact, because you need to fund the hiring of new teachers," said Mary Filardo, Executive Director of 21st Century School Fund. "Directed stimulus is really needed; otherwise school districts would continue to spend on in-house salaries, not on construction."

Too much with too little: A diluted impact

But experts worry that the plan tries to do too much with too little money, and will have only a small impact in the short-term. Obama wants to both fix schools and rapidly create jobs with stimulus, but most of the projects that can be started immediately are small repairs, not the larger modernization jobs that would have a more long-lasting impact on schools.

"Is the intent of this program to deal with schools' issues or economic stimulus?" asked David Shreve, education policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "By focusing on two purposes, they run the risk of diluting each one."

Furthermore, some analysts are concerned about how the money will distributed. Despite several attempts to pinpoint which schools need the most funds for repairs, Filardo said no good assessment exists.

To address that issue, the House has divided up the allocations: $13 billion to Title I, the proxy the government uses to determine the school districts with the highest need for academic improvement; $13 billion to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; $14 billion to a new school modernization and repair program, $1 billion to an education technology program, and as much as $79 billion to state legislatures. Still, some say the government should simply focus on the poorest communities - which are in most need of school repair and jobs.

Though the need for school funding is greater than the$120 billion that the stimulus has pledged, some say as little as $10 billion would still get the ball rolling. Once the economy gets back in shape, experts say states and school districts will be able to continue the funding efforts that the federal government began.

"It will certainly serve its purpose: a stimulus to to get things going," said Bob Canavan, chairman of Rebuild America's Schools Coalition.

Building 21st century schools

Economists say as many as 150,000 jobs could be created from the proposed school building plan, since about 10,000 jobs could be created for every billion dollars spent on schools. Half of those jobs would probably be in construction. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a leading advocate of school and education stimulus, has said job-creation figures may be triple that level.

Obama said eliminating the backlog of infrastructure projects will do more than just create jobs; it will help the next generation of Americans succeed in the future.

"To give our children the chance to live out their dreams in a world that's never been more competitive, we will equip tens of thousands of schools, community colleges, and public universities with 21st century classrooms, labs, and libraries," Obama said last week in a speech about stimulus.

The nation's teachers began lobbying hard for school repair and modernization since Obama made his announcement last week, arguing that crumbling schools have had difficulty attracting and keeping teachers.

"Teachers can't teach in overcrowded classrooms in which you have to wear a coat to stay warm," said Janet Bass, spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers. "We have to make schools conducive to teaching and learning, and we absolutely think that part of the economic stimulus package should go to building and modernizing schools."

Tim Magner, director of the U.S. Department of Education's technology division, said providing students with new, advanced technology will allow schools to use more up-to-date and innovative teaching methods that will narrow America's education gap with the rest of the world.

"By using efficient information-delivering technology at schools, students can learn problem-solving and collaboration - the kinds of skills that are difficult to export and are in high demand today," he said.

Analysts, policy makers and politicians agree that if the government gets it right, stimulus could help transform learning environments, giving American students a leg up in the years to come.

"We'll provide new computers, new technology, and new training for teachers," Obama said, "so that students in Chicago and Boston can compete with kids in Beijing for the high-tech, high-wage jobs of the future." To top of page

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