New study on school infrastructure could influence Obama's economic stimulus plan

A University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee faculty member is co-author of a recently released national study that could become a resource for President Barack Obama in considering improvements to school facilities.

Faith E. Crampton, associate professor in the UWM School of Education, wrote the report, "School Infrastructure Funding Need," for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The AFT released the report, along with another on "green" school buildings, in December and sent both to Obama's transition planning team. Part of the president's stimulus plan to jump-start the economy includes improvements to the physical and technological infrastructure of U.S. schools.

"It's pretty exciting stuff to have one's research gain the attention of national policymakers," says Crampton. "One of the reasons you do the research is the hope that it will have an impact."

The 82-page report, co-authored with David C. Thompson, professor and chair of the Department of Educational Leadership at Kansas State University, is an update of a 2001 state-by-state assessment the two researchers did on the need for school repairs, remodeling and rebuilding. That report also resulted in their 2003 book, "Saving America's School Infrastructure."

Crampton says she's "cautiously optimistic" that the Obama plan may provide vital aid to improve school facilities. She hopes that the study, which documents infrastructure funding needs in each of the 50 states, will be helpful in the planning process because it provides the numbers policymakers require. A number of prominent politicians, including Sen. Edward Kennedy, who wrote a foreword for her earlier book on school infrastructure, strongly support efforts to fund much-needed school repairs, remodeling and rebuilding.

Some economic researchers report that every dollar spent on such projects can generate almost another dollar in local spending.

"It could have a very positive effect on the economies of communities and even potentially help with property-tax burdens for school facilities."

The report to the AFT recommends that federal, state and local officials work in partnership to improve school facilities, and calls for immediate federal action through direct funding to address inadequacies and inequalities in school facilities attended by low-income children.

The greatest disparities, says Crampton, are between well-to-do suburban districts and low-income rural and urban districts. In urban districts, those affected by unequal school financing and crumbling buildings are likely to be predominately students of color. A number of studies have documented the link between the physical environment and academic achievement.

In some states and school districts, she says, substantial direct federal aid may be needed. In others, the federal role may be to provide matching dollars for state and local funding.

The report concludes that the need for improved school infrastructure is substantial, totaling $254.6 billion nationally, down only slightly (4.3 percent) from the funding needed seven years ago. That may be due, in part, to litigation that has forced additional state spending, according to Crampton. (In Wisconsin, the 2001 report showed $4.8 billion in unfunded infrastructure needs. The 2008 report puts the total at $4.4 billion).

The courts are forcing some states to address the issue of unequal school facilities, Crampton says. The recent report contains analyses of several major court cases. Courts in Arkansas and New York, for example, have ordered repairs and remodeling to equalize school facilities. While many states are hard-pressed to find money to repair or rebuild schools, they find the money when the courts force them to, she says.

Source: University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee