By Mark Duffy and David Lapp
The University of Pennsylvania announced recently that it will contribute $100 million over the next 10 years to the School District of Philadelphia, the largest private contribution in the district’s history. This is good news, because Philadelphia students are often deprived of even basic educational necessities.
But these resources will not be used to improve academic programming. They will not be used to hire additional teachers or shrink class sizes. They won’t provide extracurricular offerings or technology. The resources won’t even ensure schools have guidance counselors, librarians, or music and arts education—basic resources that many Philadelphia schools consider luxuries.
Instead, the funding is earmarked for the most basic need of all: safe school facilities.
Students should not have to depend on charitable handouts just to learn in a safe building. And while every dollar counts, these funds will be insufficient to achieve even this most basic promise. Estimates have put the cost of bringing Philadelphia school buildings up to code at around $4.5 billion.
Yes, with a “B.”
And this isn’t just a Philadelphia problem. A 2014 school facilities study of roughly 1,194 of the 3,100 public school buildings in the Commonwealth found that 66 percent of them were constructed before 1970, making it likely that they contain asbestos.
Meanwhile only a fraction of schools in the Commonwealth have been tested for lead as our state testing program is entirely voluntary.
Still, during the 2018-19 school year, more than 100 school buildings in 32 Pennsylvania school districts that voluntarily tested were found to have drinking water with unsafe levels of lead. These schools were located in rural, suburban, and urban areas all across Pennsylvania.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Schools would not have to depend on charity if the Commonwealth adequately funded public education, including funding existing programs specifically designed to address school maintenance. Last year, with the enactment of Act 70 of 2019, the General Assembly created a new Maintenance Project Grant Program (MPGP) within the long-established approach to state reimbursements for school construction, known as PlanCon.
Under the new MPGP, school entities could be reimbursed by the state for projects related to health and safety upgrades, including emergencies related to asbestos and lead.
In a recent report from Research for Action, State Funding to Ensure Safe and Healthy Facilities: Lessons for Pennsylvania, we found the that MPGP program was similar to programs in our neighboring states.
So, if we have a solid program to help Pennsylvania school districts already established in state law, what’s the problem?
The problem is that the General Assembly created the program but has refused to fund it. The legislature has not provided any funding for the MPGP, and it has instituted a moratorium for several years on all new PlanCon applications for school construction reimbursements.
One might think that school buildings free from environmental hazards like asbestos and lead would be guaranteed to all students in Pennsylvania; especially since our state constitution requires the General Assembly to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.”
But Pennsylvania’s policymakers are not providing “maintenance and support” to keep students and educators safe and healthy. Apparently, the legislature does not believe safe school buildings are one of the “needs of the Commonwealth.”
Our full report includes additional recommendations for how Pennsylvania can improve PlanCon and the MPGP. For now, many of Pennsylvania’s school children must rely on insufficient handouts for insufficiently safe school buildings.
Mark Duffy is a Senior Research Associate, and David Lapp is the Director of Policy Research, at Research for Action, a Philadelphia-based education research organization.