House Hearing Puts Spotlight on Dilapidated US Schools

Educators march through downtown Richmond, Virginia, on Jan. 28, 2019, as part of the national Red4Ed movement advocating for more school funding and better teacher pay. (CNS Photo/Brad Kutner)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Reminded about the human toll of their funding decisions, House lawmakers heard unsettling testimony Tuesday on the efforts by public schools to educate America’s youth in crumbling and moldy classrooms.

“Most of our schools do not meet the baseline standards required to adequately support 21st century learning,” Sharon Contreras, a 30-year educator who serves as superintendent for Guilford County Schools in North Carolina.

Part of a bevy of witnesses who testified today before the House Education and Labor Committee, Contreras described how some of the teachers at her school have had to repurpose their classroom trash cans as water buckets for leaky roofing.

The buildings in her district, Contreras said, are “designed for an industrial era that no longer exists.”

“it is important that we address this situation, or we will be talking about this for the next 50 years,” she added.

Against calls by Democrats to appropriate more funding for school infrastructure, however, Republicans say that irresponsible money management is precisely the problem.

“Instead of increasing salaries, improving structures and investing in classroom equipment, many school districts have ended up pouring taxpayer funds into administrative bloat that leaves students and teachers high and dry,” ranking member Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., said in her opening statement. “Higher price tags, and more bureaucracy in Washington, don’t deliver higher results.” 

Foxx’s sentiment was echoed Tuesday by Ben Scafidi, an economics professor at Kennesaw State University who testified that non-teaching staff has been the only thing to increase in the last few years, despite increased funding and smaller class sizes.

“If taxpayers continue to provide significant increases and resources in the conventional public education system, literally decades of history has taught us, there will be significant increases in employment of all other staff [and] stagnant teacher salaries,” Scafidi said.

Rep. Foxx asked Scafidi what the level of “magical spending” needs to be at to see improvement in schools. Scafidi answered that research shows increased achievement gains in school doesn’t correlate with an increase in spending. 

What does increase with public funding, Scafidi explained, are nonteaching staff positions — “layers” of bureaucracy that slow down decision making and take money from teachers and infrastructure. 

Pushed back against this testimony, meanwhile, Rep. Joseph Morelle, emphasized that nurses, counselors and bus drivers are just a few of the nonteaching staff described by Scafidi.

“People don’t just hire folks for no reason,” said Morelle, a New York Democrat.

Randi Weingarten, president of American Federation of Teachers, likewise called these nonteaching staff an essential schooling component. 

“Before you can get to their instructional needs,” Weingarten said, schools must meet their other needs with mental health, after-school and child care services.

Scafidi also testified about how schools could see improvement if K-12 teachers were paid market-based salaries, similar to those of professors in higher education. With a market-based education system based on choice – like tax credits for parents who choose private or charter schools — teachers could get paid more, Scafidi argued.

Other witnesses on the panel and Democrats disputed this as well, however, warning that public funding would wind up shaved off to support for-profit options that are not held to the same federal regulations as public institutions. 

“If you think this is just about salaries, that’s not how this works,” said Rep. Jahana Hayes, a Connecticut Democrat who in 2016 was named National Teacher of the Year. “My colleagues … went on strike not for salaries, but resources.” 

Weingarten also told the committee that teachers are especially equipped to know their student’s needs, and are fighting for the bandwidth to meet them — often forsaking their own salaries to do so. 

The Democrats’ proposed Rebuild America’s Schools Act — championed by Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island — would allocate $100 billion for “physical and digital infrastructure” in schools, including $70 billion of direct funding and $30 billion in tax credit bonds.

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