Education needs $20 billion for infrastructure, according to a report released April 29. To narrow the digital divide, funding for up-to-date video and voice technology in schools should be a focus of federal and state decision makers from coast to coast.

The report, released by the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute (EPI), calls for $20 billion in school infrastructure improvements. Much of that money would target long-deferred investments in schools located in low-income areas. The report found that high-income school districts have consistently received more federal and state support over the last decade—a trend that needs to change as low-income schools fall farther behind, said Mary Filardo, author of the report and executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, an organization that advocates on behalf of urban school systems. 

"The [low-income] schools are unable to support technology still," said Filardo, who added that despite $500 billion in federal spending for school improvements from 1995 to 2004, many urban schools were neglected. "That was the word in 1995, and it’s still the case," she said.

Funding inequities and crumbling school infrastructure have driven many parents and activists to bring the issue to court in recent years. Lawsuits have been filed in 31 states in which plaintiffs have "challenged the adequacy or equity of public education funding in low-income communities and have made facility conditions an element of their lawsuit," according to the report.

The American Society of Civil Engineers—an organization that issues grades for public buildings—has consistently given low marks to public schools. In 2005, public schools received a D, their highest grade since the society began issuing the report a decade ago.
EPI released its latest report at a news conference in Washington, D.C.

The half-trillion dollar investment from 1995 to 2004 did not go to waste, Filardo said. School districts in high-income areas reaped the benefits over that time, making building repairs, completing new schools that relieve classroom overcrowding, and updating technology.

"The more affluent districts, they got in better shape over that time," Filardo said. "But we still have a huge backlog, and what we’re hoping is that we can focus federal dollars on some of the neediest school districts."

Classroom technology that has become commonplace in affluent districts has been late arriving in urban classrooms. Those technologies, which include interactive whiteboards, computers, and equipment that enhances audio inside the classroom, "have the potential to help close achievement gaps and improve the basic quality of teaching and the productivity of teachers," according to the EPI report. 

Technology such as voice-recognition software can help some special-needs students communicate with teachers and classmates, bringing those students into the education mainstream, the report says. Educators, students, and school officials across the country have endorsed the use of audio-enhancing devices in classrooms, which project teachers’ voices throughout the room and maintain students’ attention more effectively.

School technology experts said many schools located in low-income, urban areas have purchased the latest in classroom technology with the help of federal funding, but haven’t had the employees or training to use the equipment.

"In some cases, it hasn’t been as much about equipment accessibility as about having a comprehensive vision for how to use those tools," said Ann Flynn, director of technology for the National School Boards Association. "And to have teachers gain a level of comfort, you have to have a robust, dependable infrastructure. You truly need a reliable, dependable environment."

Flynn said school buildings constructed several decades ago were not designed to support technology infrastructure that schools have incorporated over the past decade.

"There is a real need to … upgrade [school buildings]" in some urban areas, she said. "We have to have that level of behind-the-scenes infrastructure to support our teaching staff. Teachers aren’t computer technicians, and we don’t want them to be computer technicians."

The report shows stark differences in federal and state spending on schools in low-income areas. From 1995 to 2004, $9,361 was spent per student on school construction in high-income areas. In areas defined as "very low income"—where more than three-quarters of students receive free or reduced-price lunches—$4,800 was spent per student. The national average was $6,519 per student.

If the federal government spent the suggested $20 billion on bolstering school infrastructure, more than 250,000 skilled maintenance and repair jobs would be created across the country, according to the report. And bringing low-income schools up to par with schools in wealthier suburbs eventually would provide millions more educated, qualified workers for employers.

"Public education—including the built infrastructure to support it—is key to the economic prosperity of our community and nation," Filardo wrote in the EPI report.

Links:

Economic Policy Institute

21st Century School Fund