Poor school districts struggling to find affordable ways to modernize schools might be eligible for billions of dollars in additional funding, depending on how Congress voted when it returned to the lame-duck session in December.

While much of the attention surrounding the federal education budget for fiscal 2001 has focused on an amendment that would mandate the use of internet filters in schools receiving federal money, the education budget also proposes to increase funding for school construction and modernization by billions of dollars.

Included in the appropriations package is a bipartisan school modernization bill introduced by Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., and Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., called America’s Better Classrooms Act of 2000 (H.R. 4094).

This bill would commit $24.8 billion in tax credit bonds during the next two years to modernize up to 6,000 schools. Within this $24.8 billion program, $2.4 billion—up from $400 million the year before—is reserved for Qualified Zone Academy Bonds, also known as QZABs (pronounced “cue-zabs”).

The Better Classrooms Act also included a new $1.3 billion school emergency renovation loan and grant for high-need school districts with little or no capacity to fund urgent repairs. The neediest districts would have priority for receiving these funds.

The increase in the QZAB program is significant for school technology, because QZABs provide interest-free loans to low-income schools to pay for renovating school buildings, purchasing equipment (including computers and high-speed networks), developing curriculum, and training school personnel.

The limit set in bonding authority for the QZAB program, which was created in 1997, has always been $400 million per year. The proposal would expand the program by 600 percent, to $2.4 billion in bond authority over two years, and for the first time would permit QZABs to be used for new construction projects.

Schools receiving QZABs must be located in a federal empowerment zone or enterprise community, or they must have at least 35 percent of their students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

QZABs also require schools to team up with the private sector to create partnerships, because to qualify, they must get a business to match at least 10 percent of the bond value.

Schools receiving QZABs are responsible for repaying the principal, while the federal government pays the interest to the bondholder in the form of a tax credit, relieving the community of this expense. Because interest payments can equal up to 50 percent of the cost of a typical loan, states and local communities will save substantially from this program, according to U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley.

Budget uncertainty

Both Riley and President Clinton asked Congress to fully fund the school modernization and construction bill, which is cosponsored by a clear bipartisan majority of 229 House members.

“This school construction proposal is an important piece of the budget. It should have the full support of every member of Congress, including fiscal conservatives, because it would save states and communities billions of dollars in interest costs,” Riley said in a statement Oct. 24.

Days before the presidential election, Congress retreated from an agreement on the education budget, which is included in the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations bill (H.R.4577), also referred to as Labor HHS. Clinton blamed the Labor HHS hold-up on Republicans bowing to the demands of special interests.

“[On Oct. 29], we reached bipartisan agreement on an education budget that would have tremendous achievement for our children. But, under orders from their special interests, the Republican leadership canceled the compromise we had reached,” Clinton said Nov. 2.

The White House accused congressional leaders of backing away from the agreement after special interests objected to an unrelated provision regarding repetitive stress injuries in the workplace.

“The trigger point that collapsed the deal on Labor HHS was ergonomics, not an education issue,” said Dan Lara, a spokesman for the House Education and Workforce Committee. “That was the primary sticking point.”

John Emekli, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, said, “For three years, the president has been trying to get school construction legislation passed. This is the closest we’ve come. We have bipartisan support. We have representatives from both sides signed on.”

The interest-free nature of the QZABs is attractive to many schools faced with expensive repairs, renovations, and upgrading costs. In fact, 21 states across the country already use them.

The bonds are “worthwhile if you have renovation projects to do but you don’t have any money to do them,” said Paul LaRocque, business manager of the Keystone Central School District (K-12, enrollment 5,380) in Pennsylvania. The program “can save you millions of dollars in interest payments.”

“There’s a lot of flexibility with QZABs,” Emekli said. “If you need to buy computers or make classrooms accessible for t