This article explores the meaning of safe and secure schools, shows where current schools are falling short, and offers policy prescriptions, pointing to the pending federal infrastructure package as a unique opportunity to make an important down payment to secure a safer and better future for the nation’s students.

Each day, one in six Americans – over 50 million students, teachers, and other adults – enter public schools. Despite having a right to be safe and secure from a variety of threats, not all school buildings and grounds provide the level of safety, security, and educational functionality that meet modern industry facilities spending standards (see page 21 of the 2016 “State of Our Schools: America’s K–12 Facilities”). Next to highways, public school facilities are the nation’s second largest infrastructure investment at the state and local levels. In 2013, the average school was 44 years old and 53% were estimated to need repairs, renovations, and modernization to put them in good overall condition. Low-wealth urban and rural communities are especially affected by substandard buildings. State and local control of facilities can be preserved and community efforts leveraged with federal funding for public school infrastructure. A local, state, and federal partnership is needed to ensure all students are in safe and secure facilities when attending public school.

Public school districts strive to facilitate learning and knowledge in a safe and healthy environment, so students can flourish in both mind and body. School districts have a responsibility for the health, safety, and security of children while they are in their care – legally referred to acting en loco parentis – in place of the parent. However, with aging schools and a structural gap between the financial budgets required to provide modern schools and what school districts and states have been able to do alone, many schools have been falling short.

Making Schools Safe & Secure – A Local to National Effort

Addition on a 1960s public school, being modernized in 2009 (Source: 21st Century School Fund).

Healthy Schools

Without increased capital investments in the built environment, school districts will not be able to meet modern standards for healthy, safe, and secure school facilities. Hazardous building materials from an earlier age linger, such as asbestos, lead, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). These legacy chemicals actively harm students’ health, and are linked to asthma as well as liver, lung, and kidney damage. These toxins, particularly lead, affect young children, stunting brain and neural system growth. The effects from these toxic materials are increased when the facility is deteriorated – a leaky roof causes lead paint to peel off ceilings and walls, for example.

Safe Schools

As the place where millions of children go each day, public schools are being called on to meet stricter codes to protect children and communities during times of natural disaster. During hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, mudslides, or wildfires, school facilities must protect children and adults in the school, but also must operate as a shelter for those who are displaced, and as essential command and control centers for local response teams, as well as aid distribution centers for the community. Even so, many schools are not designed, built, or modernized to incorporate new building practices and materials that make school buildings more resilient. In aging school facilities, even safety essentials – like working fire alarms, appropriate egress hardware, and highly fire-rated safe-areas – are not universally in place.

Secure Schools

Schools must not only be healthy and safe places, but they must be secure for students, teachers, and other staff. In districts where high crime rates have plagued communities, many high schools have installed metal detectors and hired school resource officers to facilitate a secure environment. But what used to be targeted security concerns have expanded due to devastating school shootings – Columbine High School in 1999, and Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. The increased access to high-powered firearms made these incidents more devastating and dramatically amplified the loss of life. These tragedies, and others, have increased the desire of communities to build security into their school design. Both Homeland Security’s framework for resilience – touted in the most recent National Incident Management System (NIMS) document, released in October 2017 – and Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) emphasize a comprehensive approach to public security that can apply to public schools. However, generally, school facilities security improvements are often ad hoc and after the fact.

States & Districts – Doing Their Share

According to the “State of Our Schools: America’s K–12 Facilities” report, the nation’s public school districts, with help from most states, spent an annual average of $49 billion per year (at 2014 values) on public school construction during the fiscal years from 1994 to 2013. Almost half of local funds were for new schools, as elementary and secondary public school enrollment increased by nearly 10 million students beginning in 1990. The nation’s budget-constrained school districts held $425 billion in long-term debt nationwide a state average of $7,448 per student – at the end of FY2015. Local school districts have historically provided the majority of funds to build school facilities – approximately 82% with state governments providing the other 18%. That said, 12 states provide no aid for capital construction responsibilities.

In addition, according to the “State of Our Schools” report, “although the federal government contributes about 10% to annual operating budgets, it provides almost no support for capital construction.” Only once schools have already been damaged or destroyed by natural disasters is federal funding for such expenses provided through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Emerging Federal Efforts

There is a growing effort to secure federal support to supplement, not supplant the local and state responsibilities for modern, safe, and secure public school facilities. The reason is clear.  School districts have a critical gap between funding and needs, which the “State of Our Schools” report projects will increase at a rate of $38 billion each year over the next 10 years, severely limiting the ability of school districts to provide a healthy, safe, and secure environment for students and staff.

The case for additional capital investment in schools and a fair federal share has gained traction recently in Congress and the Executive Branch. Congressman Bobby Scott (D-Virginia) and Senator Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island) have both introduced bills addressing funding gaps. Their proposed legislation would allocate $100 billion for school facilities modernization over the next 10 years. Such investments will not only make facilities more secure for the long term, they will catalyze jobs and local economic growth in the short term. As of mid-January 2018, the Scott bill (H.R.2475) had 109 cosponsors and the Reed bill (S.1674) had 14.

In addition to the two bills in Congress, the Trump Administration – with the completion of tax reform – has pivoted toward another major campaign promise, infrastructure. President Donald Trump campaigned on the promise of creating a $1 trillion dollar infrastructure package and included schools in his speeches about infrastructure before and after the election. The administration’s infrastructure package represents a unique opportunity for school facilities to receive the critical funding needed to help make schools safer and more secure.

A one-time, single infusion of federal dollars into the neediest school districts would not create a cycle of dependency for local school districts, but rather would help close a critical gap that has long created inequitable conditions in thousands of schools. Safe and secure schools positively influence student learning as well as student, teacher, and staff health. State and local governments are doing all they can do. It is time for the federal government to step up. Healthy, safe, and secure public school infrastructure is basic. It is an essential requirement for the nation’s health, safety, security, and prosperity.  To learn more, visit www.buildusschools.org

Mary Filardo

Mary Filardo, executive director of 21st Century School Fund, founded the 21st Century School Fund in 1994 to improve the policy and practice of planning, design, construction, management, and financing for the District of Columbia public schools. In 2001, with support from the Ford Foundation, she started Building Educational Success Together (BEST) to work nationally on these issues. She has written extensively on public school facilities, developed software to support public engagement in facilities master planning, and piloted public-private school development partnerships. She holds a BA in philosophy and mathematics from St. John’s College, and a MPP from the University of Maryland. She was the 1979 Truman Scholar from the District of Columbia.

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