The U.S. House of Representatives on May 14 passed a multiyear school construction bill with the ambitious goals of producing hundreds of thousands of jobs, reducing energy consumption, and creating healthier, cleaner environments for the nation’s school children.
Opponents, almost all Republicans, objected to the cost associated with the 21st Century Green High-Performing Public School Facilities Act. The cost would be $6.4 billion in the first year, with similar outlays approved over the next five years.
It passed 275-155 and now goes to the Senate, which did not act after the House passed similar legislation last year.
The situation has changed this year. While then-President George W. Bush threatened to veto the measure, objecting to a costly new school construction program, President Barack Obama has made school improvement projects an element of his economic stimulus initiative.
"It will give much-needed money to our schools struggling with huge budget deficits and deteriorating facilities, while encouraging energy efficency and creating jobs for Americans that cannot be shipped overseas," said Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Ky., sponsor of the legislation.
The bill would provide states with money to make grants and low-interest loans so school districts could build, modernize, and repair facilities to make them healthier, safer, and more energy-efficient. The funds would be allotted under a formula based on a district’s share of students from low-income families, but the bill guarantees that every district that receives federal money for low-income students will get at least $5,000.
Supporters spoke of the difficulties of trying to learn in buildings with poor lighting, bad air quality, leaking roofs, and ill-functioning furnaces.
"Thirty-two million children in our country attend schools which are reportedly having environmental problems with their facilities that affect students’ health and their learning," said Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y.
A majority of the funds–rising to 100 percent by 2015–would have to be used for projects that meet green standards for construction materials and energy sources. Those include the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System and Energy Star.
The measure also approves a separate $600 million over six years for public schools in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama damaged by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.
"It costs too much, it borrows too much, and it controls too much," said Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon of California, top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee.
Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., asked whether the nation can "afford to add another education program that is going to be underfunded." The federal government is already failing to meet its obligations to pay for the Title I program for disadvantaged students and the IDEA program for the disabled, he said.
Among the amendments approved were items that would make reducing asthma a guideline for green schools and that would allow funds to be used for playground equipment, physical education facilities, greenhouses, and gardens.
The economic stimulus package enacted in February included more than $100 billion for education, with half of that going to states to offset budget cuts. Of that amount, states could use $9 billion for other priorities, including school modernization.
The 21st Century Green High-Performing Public School Facilities Act is H.R. 2187.