More than 20 million schoolchildren nationwide attend schools that are falling apart or ill-equipped for classroom computers, the nation’s largest teachers union says in a report calling on states to pony up their budget surpluses.

In its report, released May 3, the National Education Association (NEA) says states need $322 billion for school construction—roughly 10 times what they currently spend, and nearly three times what the federal government has estimated they need. The General Accounting Office, the research and investigative arm of Congress, has estimated that the nation’s schools need $112 billion for repair and update of older buildings.

Most of the school construction cost estimates cover bricks and mortar, but $54 billion is needed to help wire schools for the computer technology many policymakers have been keen on funding, the report said.

The average public school in America is 42 years old and 28 percent are more than 50 years old, NEA said. Fully 46 percent of the nation’s public schools lack the electrical and communications wiring necessary to support today’s computer systems.

President Clinton and congressional Democrats are pushing for increased federal funds for school repair and construction. But states bear most of the responsibility for such costs and they have been spending more than ever, NEA says.

“The crisis is eclipsing their efforts,” said Bob Chase, president of the union, which analyzed recent state finance data for the report. “We often fail to recognize that where our students learn can have a dramatic effect on what they learn.”

Individual states’ needs vary widely, the report said, because some states are more populated or have higher costs for land and building materials. New York tops the list for general school construction needs with $51 billion; Vermont, a much smaller state, needs about $333 million.

The need for wiring and infrastructure to support technology ranges from $10.9 billion in California to $103.5 million in Wyoming. Rounding out the top five states needing technology infrastructure along with California are Texas ($4.2 billion), New York ($3 billion), Florida ($2.2 billion), and Illinois ($2.1 billion).

Meanwhile, the report said, states had a $31 billion surplus in fiscal 1999. States such as Alaska, Indiana, and Delaware have the highest portion of budget surpluses, which, the NEA said, should be used to fund school construction projects.

The union’s estimates are based on 1998 and 1999 data that include school enrollments, age and condition of existing buildings, and construction costs, said spokesman Steve Wollmer.

The NEA’s report also urges the federal government to step up its efforts to provide funding for school improvement.

“We call on Congress to pass meaningful school modernization assistance, including interest subsidies and direct grants and loans that will help address these enormous needs,” Chase said.

On May 2, several Democrats in Congress—which is debating renewal of $20 billion in federal education aid to the states—said they want the federal government to spend at least $1.3 billion on school construction. But Republican leaders have resisted setting aside specific funds for school building, Democrats said.

“It’s a national disgrace,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. “Many schools have a tax base too low to fix their schools. Republicans have pulled the rug out from under them.”

The two parties are sparring about whose policies ensure that school funds are well spent. Republicans say they want states and local districts to have more freedom to combine funds from grant programs to suit their needs. Democrats say they want to target the money to specific concerns.

The differences could hinder the Senate’s work on the education bill, with both sides threatening to attach a host of proposals to the already cumbersome piece of legislation.

But Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said Republican leaders do not plan to limit debate, and the parties agreed to offer two separate proposals each.

“Let’s not make this a piece of flypaper to attract every amendment floating around this chamber,” Lott said. “There is a center ground that must and should be found in America on education.”

“Modernizing Our Schools: What Will It Cost?”

http://www.nea.org/lac/modern