By Secretary Anne Duncan
In his speech to Congress, President Obama laid out two job programs critical to ensuring every child has the opportunity for a world-class education.
He proposed to invest $30 billion to put hundreds of thousands of construction workers, engineers, boiler repairmen, and electrical workers back to work rebuilding and modernizing our aging public schools and community colleges. And he proposed an additional $30 billion to keep hundreds of thousands of educators facing potential layoffs and furloughs in classrooms where they belong—instead of on unemployment lines.
In the global economy, the nation that out-educates America will out-compete America. But the hard truth is that a number of nations are now out-educating the U.S.—and the antiquated conditions of many public schools are limiting children’s access to the 21st century tools and skills needed to compete in a knowledge economy.
The average public school building in the United States is over 40 years old. Many school buildings are even more antiquated. Today, the digital age has penetrated every nook of American life—with the exception of many of our public schools.
Most classrooms have changed little from a century ago. In fact, 43 states report that a third or more of their schools fail to meet the functional requirements necessary to effectively teach laboratory science—even though hands-on science education is vital for the jobs of the future. That’s no way to provide a world-class education.
Cash-strapped school districts meanwhile face an enormous $270 billion backlog of deferred maintenance and repairs. Tragically, children in the nation’s poorest school districts often attend schools with crumbling ceilings, overcrowded classrooms, and facilities that lack basic wiring infrastructure for computers, projectors, and other modern-day technology.
This is not a partisan issue. The physical conditions at some aging schools today are shameful. They are no place for children to learn.
The President’s plan is one of the largest-ever investments in school modernization. It would modernize approximately 35,000 schools, or about a third of all public schools in the United States.
Under his plan, $25 billion would go to upgrading existing public school facilities (including charter schools), with $5 billion invested in modernizing community colleges.
Federal funds would be targeted to the neediest school districts and those ready to act fast to put people back to work. But the federal government won’t fund new construction or get involved in picking which schools to modernize.
Those decisions will be left entirely to states and districts with an on-the-ground knowledge of local needs. Some communities will support major classroom renovations, plaster, and plumbing upgrades. Others will invest in energy efficiency to reduce soaring utility bills—or modernize science labs and support technology needed to prepare students for 21st century jobs.
Projections from proposals similar to the President’s plan suggest it could create as many as 300,000 jobs in the construction trades. And modernizing and rebuilding our schools is a classic win-win solution. It benefits everyone—children, communities, and the construction workers back on the job.
While modernization could put a small army of Americans back to work rebuilding and upgrading our schools, looming teacher layoffs could have a devastating impact on classroom instruction and the careers of hundreds of thousands of teachers.
According to the Council of Economic Advisers, as many as 280,000 education jobs may be on the chopping block in the upcoming school year due to multi-billion dollar state and local budget shortfalls for teacher salaries and benefits.
Behind those numbers are the real lives of committed, talented teachers, who are devoted to their students and work tirelessly to help them learn.
The quality of the teacher at the front of the classroom is the single biggest in-school influence on student learning. As the bar for educational success rises worldwide in the knowledge economy, this is no time to be laying off scores of teachers and early childhood educators.
Already, financially-pinched school districts are reducing class time, shortening the school calendar, cutting afterschool programs and early childhood education, and reducing arts and music instruction.
The path to prosperity, the way to win the future, is to invest wisely in schools, remembering that children get only one chance at an education.
That’s why I support the President’s plan to modernize our schools for the 21st century and minimize teacher layoffs. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the smart thing to do.
If you would like to find out more about the American Jobs Act watch the full enhanced version of the speech here.
<em>Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education </em>