If you look behind one of the toilets at a certain school in Virginia, you'll find a plethora of mushrooms. If you walk through a school in one of America's many rural communities, you just might see a huge chunk of plaster fall from the ceiling while class is in session.
It's no secret that many schools need repairs, but the situation is way worse than you could have imagined.
Approximately 50 million students attend the nearly 100,000 public elementary and secondary schools in the United States. Of these schools, many in large urban districts and small rural areas are unhealthy and unsafe for teachers and students.
In fact, according to a recent State of Our Schools report from The Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), these conditions are so bad that it will take $271 billion to get public schools in working order, and $542 billion to get them up to date.
Rachel Gutter, the director of the Center for Green Schools at U.S. Green Building Council, says the conditions in many of these schools are "deplorable" and "unfit for humans to be inside."
This issue is very personal for Gutter. "My mom just left a school district after more than 20 years of service and she has permanent respiratory damage from being in sick classrooms," she said in a recent interview.
How can we expect our kids to dream big about their futures when we send them into facilities that are worse than prisons?
Her mother, and other teachers she knows, have chosen to teach at green schools built "with an eye toward indoor air quality and proper ventilation." While teachers have the option to switch schools, many students don't.
"When we think about the fact that all of our future leaders are in school today," Gutter says, "how can we expect our kids to dream big about their futures when we send them into facilities that are worse than prisons?"
The issue, Gutter says, is one of equity. "What we see time and time again is there is a major discrepancy in funds and resources that flow to affluent communities and funds and resources that flow to the communities that need it the most."
The Center for Green Schools is well aware these changes can't be made overnight, but Gutter says, "Almost all of these projects have a desirable payback based on the energy and water savings." She says that involving the private sector will also have an impact.
In the meantime, the Center wanted to wet the public's pallete with this report. They hope it will push the government to take action, do further research, and make an effort to keep our schools healthy and safe. Some of the key recommendations the report makes include:
- Expanding the Common Core of Data to include school level data on building age, building size and site size.
- Improve the current fiscal reporting of school district facility maintenance and operations data to the National Center for Education Statistics so that utility and maintenance expenditures are collected separately.
- Mandate a GAO facility condition survey take place every ten years, with the next one beginning immediately.
Former president Bill Clinton wrote in a foreword to the report that:
School districts can make significant infrastructure improvements with little to no upfront cost to their communities—improvements that will free up critical dollars for more teachers, computers, or textbooks. And the schools that undergo retrofits will be improving their learning spaces while creating jobs and supporting local economies.
Money aside, Gutter says, we have a moral obligation to fix our schools.
Jenny Inglee is a Los Angeles-based journalist and the Education Editor at TakePart. She has taught English in Vietnam and tutors homeless children in Los Angeles. Email Jenny | @jennyinglee | TakePart.com