A plan to repair, upgrade and rebuild the nation’s schools got a big boost in the U.S. House of Representatives this week. With AFT leaders and supporters at her side, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi lifted up a bill that would authorize $100 billion to make sure every school building is as safe and welcoming as the best school building in America.
At a news conference March 3, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan blasted lawmakers for letting schools fall to dust—poisonous dust.
“I’m here today because the lives of my members and the children we serve are at risk. In fact, the children and staff of Philadelphia schools are being poisoned by asbestos in our schools,” Jordan said. “I’m here because I’m disgusted by the disregard those in power have for our students and educators.”
So far this school year, he said, 10 Philadelphia schools have been shuttered due to asbestos, and even more have identified less severe damage. PFT started a Fund Our Facilities campaign so that members can report problems with school infrastructure, advocate for enough money to fix the problems, and bring lawsuits to bear if needed.
“No educator or child should have to teach or learn under such conditions,” Jordan said. “It’s an egregious breach of human rights that could quite literally cost them their lives. I hope that we can reckon with this abject and astounding societal failure to invest in public education.”
When schools are safe and welcoming, AFT President Randi Weingarten said, it tells students they are important. Pointing to photos of nasty conditions inside schools in Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania, she said that toxic mold, cancer-causing asbestos and bouts of extreme heat and cold tell children the exact opposite—that they don’t matter. “When a kid walks into a school like this,” she said, “it says more than anything we tell them.”
Fund our future
The AFT fights for necessary investments in schools and colleges to fund the futures of the students we serve. We fight for the freedom to teach and the freedom to care. The Rebuild America’s Schools Act would help meet these goals, not just in one state but across the country.
Introduced last year by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), H.R. 865 would upgrade public schools’ physical and digital infrastructure and help secure equality for all students, even those in the most impoverished rural and urban areas. The bipartisan bill, with more than 200 co-sponsors, would address a D+ report card on the nation’s infrastructure by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Jordan and Scott joined Pelosi, Weingarten and NEA President Lily Eskelsen García, along with Reps. Donald Norcross (D-N.J.) and Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.), in calling on Congress to do better. “These educators want what children need,” Scott said. “All of our communities would benefit from this investment.”
Indeed, the need for improvements to school infrastructure is longstanding and widespread. In Baltimore, students have shivered through the winter wearing coats in class. In Colorado, a facilities shortage leaves students trying to learn in leaking trailers. A report on Detroit’s school buildings found that a quarter of them are in unsatisfactory condition and another 20 percent are so bad that ceiling tiles are missing, electrical wires exposed, and leaking roofs buckle floors. And in Scranton, Pa., the state continues to shortchange public schools by $32.5 million a year. Mold spreads uncontrolled, asbestos-filled schools languish and there are not enough maintenance personnel.
A need for change
There is strong public support for investing in public education, Weingarten noted, but the Trump administration keeps defunding and destabilizing public schools. The AFT has filed lawsuits demanding that officials address unsafe school conditions in Detroit, Philadelphia and, earlier, in New York City.
In Puerto Rico, the AFT has donated tents to be used as classrooms because 20 percent of the island’s schools remain unsafe after recent earthquakes. Despite our members’ generosity, America’s infrastructure crisis is huge and demands a bold response from the federal government—about $2 trillion to fix roads, bridges, schools and the electrical grid over the coming decade. Weingarten asked listeners to imagine if President Trump had actually made those investments instead of wasting $2 trillion in tax cuts for the rich.
All kids deserve a sound, healthy school building, she said, “whether they live in Scarsdale or Philadelphia.” And teachers unions shouldn’t have to file lawsuits to fix dangerous conditions.
A Senate version of the House bill is still awaiting action. You can help get this bill passed by sending a letter to your senators right now urging them to co-sponsor the Rebuild America’s Schools Act and push for its immediate passage.