Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
This week’s cold snap revealed the sorry state of infrastructure in many urban schools on the East Coast. But there’s no quick fix.
As temperatures dropped into the teens in Baltimore this week, the city’s public schools became the focus of national outrage: Images of kids in parkas huddled together for warmth in city classrooms quickly went viral. Sixty public schools—about a third of Baltimore’s system—reported problems with heating, prompting the city to close all schools on Thursday and Friday.
Baltimore has a reputation for poor infrastructure and deprivation when it comes to K-12 education. A 2016 study, for instance, showed that the city would need an extra $358 million annually to adequately fund its schools. Yet the city’s hardly alone in its resource woes: Tax cuts and relentless efforts to reduce costs have left urban public schools across the country strapped for cash, with similarly decrepit infrastructure as a result.
Indeed, schools in other icy east coast cities, such as Raleigh, North Carolina, Lowell, Massachusetts, and Charleston, West Virginia, also shuttered this week due to faulty HVAC systems and burst pipes. Lower-income students and students of color are more likely to attend these dilapidated schools, and conditions reported in some are horrific: A 2015 Al Jazeera investigation uncovered classrooms in Philadelphia with flaking lead paint, rodent droppings, mold, and asbestos.
As the Baltimore school heating crisis reveals, fixing urgent needs in under-resourced facilities is neither easy nor quick. While it might seem sensible for school districts to prioritize maintaining basic services such as heating, cooling, and electricity—or, as many Baltimore parents are demanding, just fix the boiler now and figure out how to pay for it later—according to David Thompson, an expert in school finance at Kansas State University, public schools that operate within a restrictive state accounting structure just can’t do that. “Very little of a school district’s budget—usually less than 15 percent—is available for costs beyond personnel,” he said. “That situation is made worse by failing infrastructure in the form of aging and sometimes nearly ancient school buildings, which are enormously expensive to upgrade or replace.”
Thompson added that teacher costs aren’t the problem; it’s more that non-teacher costs are typically beyond the control of the school district. While districts can seek infrastructure funding by placing improvement projects on local ballots, voters often won’t approve them, for fear of raised taxes. Voters in wealthier areas are more likely to give them the green light.
This translates into better facilities in higher-income areas and exacerbates the inequality that’s already in place from funding schools through local property taxes. (The highest-income communities spend close to three times as much on school construction as those with the lowest incomes.)
The low-income kids most in need of robust school infrastructure are the ones who don’t usually get it. As Baltimore’s current plight shows, for many children, school serves not only as a place to learn, but as a distributor of needed social services like free meals and after-school care. Closing all the district’s schools because of heating woes also consigns hundreds of hungry kids to empty homes that may be no warmer.
Students at low-income schools also often lag behind their higher-income counterparts in achievement, and research demonstrates that a school building’s facilities contribute to this gap. “Studies show that students in schools with classrooms with overly warm or cool temperatures and noise pollution, such as airplane noise, perform worse than students in schools with better structural conditions,” said Sapna Cheryan, a University of Washington professor who has researched the issue.
“The bottom line,” said Thompson, “is if you improve the facilities, pupil performance will improve.”
What can be done? States can redistribute educational resources from more-affluent communities to less-affluent ones, as the state of Michigan has done; Portland, Oregon, has also done this with wealthy schools’ parent donations. This may bring more resources to disadvantaged schools, but infrastructure problems are likely to persist due to funding formulas.
Thompson said the answer is straightforward, albeit politically unattractive: State legislatures and taxpayers must be willing to increase tax burdens to do right by schools. “The only answer is for states to accept the challenge to provide the necessary funds for every school building to be a warm and attractive environment for every child,” he said. “If they fail to do that, they are guaranteeing more of the same issues they frequently complain about.”