School Infrastructure Investments Bridge Paths to Better Future

April 29, 2021 by Victoria Turner
In this March 2, 2021, photo, socially distanced, and with protective partitions, students work on an art project during class at the Sinaloa Middle School in Novato, Calif. U.S. guidelines that say students should be kept 6 feet apart in schools are receiving new scrutiny from federal health experts, state governments and education officials working to return as many children as possible to the classroom. (AP Photo/Haven Daley, File)

Tara Roberts, a single mother of eight, was committed but “in tears” as she opened her first classroom door at Portland Community College, said Mark Mitsui, president of PCC. She now holds a doctorate in nursing, is a health care administrator, all her kids completed post-secondary education and two of them even teach at PCC today, Mitsui said yesterday.

During a House Education and Labor Committee hearing that sparked an unyielding cross-aisle debate on whether significant federal funding for schools actually leads to better student outcomes and jobs, Mitsui pointed to Dr. Roberts as an example of how community colleges not only provide a career path to a better life for adults, but for their children.

Tied into President Biden’s infrastructure package, the American Jobs Plans, $100 billion out of the $2.6 trillion plan would be allocated to repair school facilities. In his congressional address Wednesday night, Biden said he is also introducing the American Families Plan, adding four more years of public education – two years of free preschool and two years of free tuition at community colleges, allowing workers to attain necessary re-skilling credentials to meet future jobs needs. 

Republicans yesterday not only argued that overinvestment in schools would increase national debt without any proven outcome, such as better reading or math skills upon high school graduation or completion of post-secondary degrees. Moreover, they asserted that schools were not infrastructure, as that constitutes highways, roads, buildings and bridges, said Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C. Only 3% of US school buildings need immediate repairs, she claimed, pointing to 2012 federal data. Both the American Jobs Plan and Biden’s proposed Families plan “[fund] a socialist wishlist,” she criticized. Only targeted local and state aid will “affect real change,” she said, not “throwing money at a problem under the guise of relief.” 

But Mitsui sees PCC as just that: a bridge. On one side of the bridge, he explained, are the workers needing an “educational opportunity” to advance. On the other side, is the need to fill “high-skilled jobs that offer living wages,” he said, and PCC is the bridge between them. 

“Investments in students that cross the bridge and investments in the bridge itself can keep America at the forefront of the world economy” and an “equitable recovery,” Mitsui said. As opposed to the 3% claimed by Foxx, the $12 billion the infrastructure plan would invest in upgrading community colleges is a fraction of the $60 billion national total estimated by the American Association of Community Colleges in “deferred maintenance, renovations and upgrades.” And PCC is a great example of how this plan can work, he said. 

For every public dollar invested into PCC, Mitsui added, “society as a whole in Oregon sees a return of $8.20 in reduced social costs and increased earnings.” 

“Without upskilling opportunities, half of the adults in this country are at a risk of being locked out of the next economy,” said Mitsui, noting that about half of American adults between the ages of 25 to 64 do not have a post-secondary education.

Foxx said free post-secondary education, however,  just means someone else foots the bill. According to Brian Riedl, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, the “fiscally irresponsible” $2.6 trillion plan will be “mostly paid in new corporate tax hikes” and this “most expensive non-emergency law…[comes] at a time when the national debt is already projected to double from $17 trillion to $35 trillion in 2030.” The bureaucratic red tape of infrastructure investments is the actual problem that needs to be solved, he said, as it takes too long to “break ground” on these projects. 

Neal McCluskey, director at the Cato Institute, pointed out the founding fathers chose not to include educational funding under the purview of the federal government in the Constitution. They were aware that federal funding means federal oversight and sway, he explained, and state and local governments are more aware of the needs of their communities. 

Nevertheless, these governments cannot raise the revenue necessary to “support [their] capital needs,” countered Mary Filardo, founder and executive director of the 21st Century School Fund. And that’s when the “federal government steps in.” 

“Roads and bridges get funds for the same reasons our public school infrastructure needs federal funds,” she said, and the average age of a public school in the U.S. is 50 years, and many never modernized at all. Seventy percent  of Americans polled agreed infrastructure should include schools, she added. 

These infrastructure investments, Mitsui urged, “are about helping more people like Tara and their families cross that bridge to a better life.” 

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