What Are We Doing for Rural Schools?

On July 10 the Rural Assembly hosted a roundtable of rural stakeholders and advocates working on rural school infrastructure needs to discuss the current state of legislation and funding and needs for the future and in the time of Covid-19. 

The roundtable brought together key rural stakeholders with advocates who are already working to find alignment on this issue. Presenters included Congressman Bennie Thompson, Laura Jimenez of Center for American Progress, and Mary Filardo of 21st Century Schools Fund. The panel was moderated by the Rural Assembly and the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative. 

Transcript of Presentations

Whitney Kimball Coe: Welcome, everyone. My name is Whitney Kimball Coe, and I am the director of National Programs for the Center of Rural Strategies and the coordinator for the National Rural Assembly. We’re so grateful to you for choosing to be here at the end of the day. We’re close to the end of the day on Friday. It looks like we’ve got a participant list of maybe about 30 people, which is really exciting for this conversation.

We’re here today to discuss what it will take to get rural schools included in national infrastructure legislation. I want to say that the impetus for this roundtable came from a conversation that my colleague, Mary Sketch, and I had with two trailblazers a few weeks ago, Oleta Fitzgerald and Carol Blackmon, who are key leaders of the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative for Economic and Social Justice. That’s a collective of women leaders across Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, who are dedicated to lifting up black women and families in rural and impoverished areas. So when Carol and Oleta called Mary and I at the Rural Assembly a few weeks ago and asked us to gather a bunch of stakeholders for a conversation where we could make some good trouble around this issue, we were all in for that.

The Rural Assembly has, since 2007, been bringing together conversations like this one. We try to provide platforms where diverse groups of people can come together and talk about topics that range from everything from broadband to climate change, to housing and journalism. Maybe some of you tuned into our live stream conversations that we’ve been having during this time of COVID, where we’ve explored some of those same topics and how people are handling them and pivoting during COVID-19 time. Today, I’m really happy that we’re getting to have this discussion, again, about rural schools and including them in national infrastructure legislation.

I quickly want to just thank one more time Carol and Oleta for their leadership. Oleta told me yesterday when we were going through the agenda, she said, “We can move faster when we all move together.” So when it’s time for that round-table discussion, which will happen in about a half an hour, I encourage all of you to use all the Zoom tools that you have at your disposal to participate. That means feel free to raise your hand, and we’ll call on you. There is an actual raise-your-hand reaction on your Zoom toolbar, so you can use that, and that way we’ll know. If you’re not being heard and you feel like we haven’t seen you, feel free to unmute yourself and speak up when the time comes. We’ll have a question and answer and a conversation that gets us all more engaged. I’m going to ask Oleta to give us a little bit more background about this topic and to share our objectives for this call. Go for it, Oleta.

Oleta Fitzgerald: All right. Thank you so much, Whitney, and thank Rural Strategies and the National Rural Assembly for helping us out and working together with us on this issue. I came to this issue, or SRBWI, Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative, came to this issue back in 2015 when we released our second report entitled Unequal Lives: The State of Black Women and Their Families in the Rural South. A primary recommendation, a finding growing out of that report was the disparate access to technology, and not only for rural schools, but also for healthcare and everything that comes with that.

COVID-19 has clearly lifted the veil on things that those of us who have been working on the ground in communities and doing this work, like Mary Filardo and Laura Jimenez, who are also on this call along with Congressman Thompson, they have known for a very long time. But we might have an opportunity here, given what is happening in the country as a result of the pandemic and as everybody talks about the civil unrest and all of a sudden, “Oh, wow. There are inequities in society, and there are problems with structural opportunities.”

So we are thankful that you would join this call today. We are not just wanting to have a conversation, though we’re not really ginned up to know exactly what it is we want, except we do want to join up with people who have already been engaged in pushing school systems and school buildings as part of any infrastructure legislation that’s moving forward in Congress.

So we have two objectives for today’s conversation. One is to learn from the experts. And we have, as we said, three presenters with us today who will give us an overview of the topic, leading with Congressman Bennie Thompson from Mississippi’s Second Congressional District, and I’ll come back with his introduction; Laura Jimenez from the Center for American Progress, who will cover five key questions about school infrastructure and the federal role in it; and Ms. Mary Filardo of 21st Century Schools, who will tell us how stakeholders and organizers are coming together around the issue. That’s our first objective.

Our second objective is to jumpstart a conversation among us that will put a spotlight on rural schools and determine if there is enough desire within the group on the phone to continue to collaborate and to join together to support action on rebuilding schools in our rural communities. So Mary, Whitney, I can go straight into introducing Congressman Thompson. Congressman Bennie Thompson is a good friend. We were in undergraduate school together. He was a bit ahead of me. Well, not a bit ahead. I guess about a year ahead of me. But he’s a long-time friend. And I knew him first as a freedom fighter, and then as the mayor of the town of Bolton, and then as supervisor of Hinds County in Mississippi. Then he came… This is his 13th term in the U.S. House of Representatives. He represents the Second Congressional District in Mississippi, which is mostly a rural district.

And I have seen from his readings and heard him speak about his concerns for education. He is a former schoolteacher early in life. In 2000, he authored legislation that created the National Center for Minority Health and Health Care Disparities in that year, in 2000. And Lord, have we come full circle now on that conversation. In 2001, he was appointed by the leadership of the House as Chair of the House Homeland Security Committee and has served on agriculture, budget, and the small business committees. His bio says that, and I’ll end with this, and then Congressman, you can just enter however you wish, he’s an unabashed champion of civil rights, equal education, and healthcare delivery, long before the COVID-19. Thank you for joining us, Congressman Bennie Thompson.

Congressman Bennie Thompson: Thank you very much and let me say good afternoon to everyone on the call. I was wondering, what could I tell a group of people who already get it? Well, part of what I want to share with you is a little bit of where we are legislatively, but also what’s some challenges we have with COVID-19. As you know, we just recently passed a transportation and infrastructure package in Washington within the last week that included some funding for education that would also be used for construction in schools in certain situations. Our challenge is… The House of Representatives, we get it. I can’t speak for my colleagues in that other body. They tend to not be so agreeable, so we have to negotiate that. But what we have historically done is provided funding under the CARES Act for both urban and rural schools.

The challenge with the rural component is they always tie it to demographics in terms of the population and other things. What we are now trying to get instituted is what we call communities of persistent poverty. If we take communities of persistent poverty as a guide, then those communities who have historically been underserved would get additional monies for whatever purpose, water, sewage, housing. But they would get, I guess, what we call in the country, they would get catch-up money for those years of being underserved. So we look forward to that.

In the HEROES Act, which we’ve already passed in the House, that goes to the Senate, there are also additional monies for school districts, counties, municipalities also. But one of the challenges that we have is, while the colleagues on the Senate side claim they love all Americans, it’s a numbers game. And if those urban districts are lobbying hard, we have to create a strategy, I think, as those who are concerned about rural America to offset it.

Now, the real challenge for those of you who are on this chat is we don’t have a lot of voices speaking on behalf of rural America these days in a unified sense. So I compliment the Rural Assembly for trying to pull the effort together. Most of the instances, people generally support education, but they don’t understand the notion that rural districts need additional help.

I’ll give you an example. I have about 30 school districts in my congressional district. The majority of them have been out since March, and they’re talking about virtual learning. Well, 20 of those school districts don’t have connectivity, so virtual learning is nonexistent. Now compounded with what they had to go through at the end of this year, they are now being told, “Well, you’re going to have to come up with some kind of a hybrid system,” of which we don’t know, but it’s all based on connectivity again that we don’t have.

Now, the districts are talking, “Well, we’re going to have to assess the students a fee for coming to public schools.” Well, one of the tenets of public education in this country is it’s free. Now, if somehow I have a MacBook, but I can’t afford the $50 fee to connect to that school, then I’m still in trouble. Or if I have the fee to connect to that school, but when I go home I’m not connected, my MacBook is no good at home.

So there are some challenges that we are facing in education. We want to be a part of the solution. The challenge for all of you on this call, I want you to know, is you have to get ahead of the vendor community. The vendor community is coming up with all kinds of bells and whistles to solve the problem, but it’s all about the money that most of those districts don’t have. And at the end of the day, you don’t get the requisite support for the students.

Lastly, these districts are struggling with infrastructure in terms of the physical facilities, trying to meet the CDC standards for opening. And a majority of these districts use busing. Now districts are having, rather than running one route to pick up children, they’ll have to run three because of the social-distancing requirements on the buses. But that’s just one aspect of the problem. The next problem comes when they get to the classroom that’s already overcrowded the year when they left. Now they don’t have enough room with social distancing to teach the classes. Compounded with that, we don’t have enough qualified teachers to teach a smaller class size.

So there are a lot of things associated with it at the federal level. We’re trying to address some of it. But right now, about 85% of the education dollars in this country come from state and local government. So there’s an opportunity for the federal government to be a little more robust in our investment in public education and in rural communities. But by and large, still the lion’s share of this will go toward state and local.

So I could tell you about the need for us to work on a broader advocacy community, but you know that. We need to facilitate the training of rural school board members, so they get it. That tends to be a real challenge, as well as the patron community of those districts. We need to continue to work on building that patron base for school districts so that there’s a support system.

So I appreciate the opportunity to be here. I’m a passionate supporter of the mission. As Oleta talked about it, a mother, a wife, and a daughter, all who’ve been involved in education is a huge prerequisite as to where I am. But the notion is, for the majority of people in rural America, an education is their only way out. So to us, we have to make sure that they get the best quality education available. And I think some of what we’ll talk about here today is the public policy of how do we get to that point, and I look forward to it. Thank you very much.

Whitney: Thank you so much, Congressman Thompson. So I get to introduce our next speaker/presenter, Laura Jimenez. We’re honored to have her here with us too. Laura is the Director of Standards and Accountability at American Progress or Center for American Progress. And she’s the author of the 2019 article that we shared with many of you, I think most of you when we invited you into this round table. She wrote a 2019 article called The Case for Federal Funding of School Infrastructure. She’s here today to offer up some questions that we all might have on our minds and to offer the answers to them as well, some of the key questions about school infrastructure and the federal role in it. So thank you, Laura, for being here. And we have your slides, and I’ll let Joel throw those up there.

Laura Jimenez: Great. Thank you so much. And really, thank you all for inviting me to speak on this really critical topic. Good afternoon, everyone. I don’t really need to wait for the slides, so I’m just going to keep… Yep. There we go. Awesome. All right. So good afternoon, everyone. And thank you for your remarks, Congressman Thompson. I’ll provide a little context into what you shared with the group. And to do that, I’ll be framing my remarks using a handful of key questions that you see there on the slide. So I’m going to be covering both the broad topic of school infrastructure needs and then the specific needs regarding public safety if schools reopen in the fall.

So the first question is, what do we mean when we say school infrastructure? Well, we mean the structures that make up public schools, including classrooms, hallways, offices, playgrounds, sidewalks, and the systems that keep these spaces functional, like plumbing, heating, cooling, computers, technology, windows, roofs, et cetera. So school infrastructure really contributes to the health and safety of students and staff as well as impacts the quality of teaching and learning that happens in schools. But because schools are also used for civic purposes, like serving as polling stations or emergency shelters, school infrastructure is not just an education issue, frankly, but it’s one that impacts local communities.

Well, how do we currently fund school infrastructure? Well, not very well. There’s no permanent national funding for school infrastructure, as you may have read in my report, even though national funding for K-to-12 education programming is at about 10%. About half of all districts receive local money for infrastructure. And high poverty districts, such as many rural districts, are more commonly… They’re more commonly reliant on state funding for school infrastructure. And when states cut their education funding, like we’re about to see coming into this next school year, the school infrastructure often gets cut first because it saves more money for education programming and educator jobs.

All right, next, what is our source of information about school infrastructure needs? Well, we lack a national database. So we know from national surveys conducted by the Government Accountability Office, groups like Mary Filardo’s 21st Century Schools Fund, and from news reports about the egregious school building conditions and roughly the state of our schools. Some States like Rhode Island and some districts like DC, collect data on school building conditions and some of them report this information. Well, what do those reports say about school infrastructure needs? Well, they say that the average age of a school building is about 50 years old. About one-third of all schools need repairs or upgrades to major systems like air ventilation and plumbing.

About a quarter of them need repairs to lighting, roofing and security and about 12% need repairs to structural integrity. Several school districts have schools in uninhabitable condition, like in Baltimore, schools in the Bureau of Indian Education, schools in Detroit and schools in Puerto Rico. They have been deemed uninhabitable, yet school children visit them every day. Cost estimates to bring schools into good repair is about 200 billion in today’s dollars.

This does not include costs to modernize buildings and labs, to provide a 21st-century education or to make buildings more energy efficient. These cost estimates preclude safety measures to contain the spread of coronavirus, which will require additional funding to reduce class size, sanitize and run health screenings. Because we’re now learning that the coronavirus is airborne, experts have said that well-functioning air ventilation systems are a must in sending students back to school.

For example, we’re seeing some numbers out of San Diego Unified School District in California that estimate the additional costs at $1,000 per student in order to meet CDC guidelines. These costs also don’t include the approximately five billion it would take to provide internet connectivity for the millions of children without it at home as the Congressman shared. So what has Congress proposed recently on school infrastructure?

Well, last year, the house proposed the Rebuild America Schools Act to provide $100 billion over 10 years, which would be about half the cost to bring all schools into good repair. The Cares Act did not include specific funding for school infrastructure, but it does allow funding to be used to sanitize schools and to purchase technology to support remote learning. As the Congressman mentioned, the house passed a one trillion infrastructure package that includes 130 billion for school infrastructure.

As he alluded to, this is more of a messaging bill about the importance of including infrastructure and school infrastructure in recovery funding. So this is kind of a bleak picture. What’s next? Well, I think with groups like yours, we’ve got to push to include school infrastructure in the next round of stimulus and recovery funding.

We also need to establish permanent federal funding for school infrastructure at a rate that is at least in line with what it provides for education programming. Then we’ve got to establish a national database to collect and report information on the condition of all public schools desegregated by student population groups, by socioeconomic status and by geography. So those are my remarks and I’m happy to stick around, listen to the conversation and participate in the discussion. Thank you so much.

Whitney: Thank you, Laura. This is important information. Oleta, I think you get to introduce Mary.

Oleta: Okay. I just wanted to say that got a lot of information. There are a lot of questions that I know as we’re going through this, that are formulating in people’s heads about how and what we can do about this. So just want to keep people thinking that way is the purpose of the call. What can we do when a moment like this has come and will we have this opportunity again anytime soon? But our next presenter is somebody who has been engaged in this work as a parent all the way up to a professional in her field.

She is Mary Filardo and she is Executive Director of the 21st Century School Fund. Mary founded the 21st Century School Fund in 1994 to improve the crumbling school facilities and the District of Columbia school district, where her three children were enrolled in school. She has researched and written extensively on public school facility, policy and spending as well as worked with communities and officials to engage them in long range facilities master planning.

The 21st Century School Fund is a leader of the Rebuild America School Infrastructure Coalition and provides staff support for the National Council on School Facilities and Association of State Facilities Officials. Mary is degreed in philosophy and mathematics from St. John’s College. She’s a Truman scholar and has a Master’s in Public Policy from the University of Maryland. She knows it from the groundwork all the way up to the research and policy infrastructural implementation phases. So Mary, tell us what can we do to help here?

Mary Filardo: All right, so I’m more optimistic than other folks. It’s funny listening to myself. I did get those degrees, but I never did graduate high school. So it’s lot of ways to run this life. Let me just share my screen, because I want to get quickly to what we can do. I’m really excited to be here talking with you folks and have the opportunity to listen.

Because I think that the combined forces of those of us I started with on the urban side, but I think we absolutely need the rural voices in communities on this issue. So I think I’ve got some thoughts about that strategy. So let me just pull up my screen. What does it want to see? I don’t know. Let’s see. I guess it only has one screen, so let’s see what it’ll do. Can you all see that facility’s investments? Here it is. Okay. There you go. Can you see that Facilities Investment Disparities? I spent a long time studying this and partly why I got into the data and information is because for those of you who do organize in communities, you don’t have any real power except for knowledge. So knowledge of conditions and then in our case, we realized we needed to know more about the public school buildings in our community than the officials did. Frankly, that wasn’t that hard. But we’ve been studying it for a long time.

One of the things that was interesting to us in the recent GAO report, was in part because this is what we found as well, is that it’s really about poverty. That the differentials by district, it wasn’t much difference in capital spending, which is the facility spending that’s generally borrowed through bonds. Didn’t much matter how big your district was. It actually didn’t even matter if it was a rural or an urban or suburban district.

What really predicts whether or not you’ve got adequate funding is whether or not it’s a poor district. So I think this is important to understand sort of writ large. So it’s a lot about wealth. Now, what we know is that that isn’t just about wealth. So this for example, is 10 years of spending from a growth and disparity report that we did looking at 1995 to 2004. Part of why I’m sharing this sort of old data is, if you’ve got 10 years of this sort of disparity, almost more than 6,000 a student.

You’ve got 10 years on top of that, you still have the disparity that the GAO reports. You’ve got some really disparate conditions in your low wealth census areas and this was actually by zip code. What was also true in that same 10 year period, looking at it by race, we found interesting. Because it was disparate in that the predominantly minority districts were spending less on a per student average than the predominantly white. But the real differences were in wealth.

This was a difference of about 2000 over 10 years. So we have the disparity issues, which is in part why we really came initially and a little bit slowly I think, to a federal role. We were pushing States, involved with States that were suing on account of their inequitable school conditions. But we realized that there was no way that we could close these gaps for the very low wealth districts. The small ones or the large ones, without some federal help.

So I want to talk with you about that. That’s on the broad rebuild, long-term spending. The other thing that I’m hoping that you all will help the basic coalition with, is the immediate reopening dollars. We think that there’s an opportunity, certainly a need to get some emergency public school facility repair and renewal dollars into the highest poverty school districts. What we know is that kids are returning. If they’re in a high poverty community, they are far more likely to be returning to a school that’s in poor condition.

This is a picture from Lee County. I spent some time talking to folks there. This is in Virginia. A question I would ask you is, how do you socially distance if you have to stay around the corner because the buckets have to catch the water from the roof. There’s a lot of problems with implementing the mitigation measures if you are in basically poor conditions. Part of what we know in terms of the conditions that are out there, is if you’re going to do hand-washing that there are bathrooms that are in poor condition.

In some cases, not even sinks operable or other things possible. Again, the mention of COVID as an airborne issue, when you don’t have good ventilation or you can’t open your windows or you don’t have a heating and cooling system with good ventilation again, these are really serious problems for returning kids to school. If you don’t have a way to make improvements to your outdoors, shade or other safety and security measures, you can’t use your outdoor spaces. Some screens or something for mosquitoes. But also when you are already meeting emergency needs because of leaks or asbestos or lead in your buildings, you just can’t meet a higher cleaning and distancing standards for your schools. So, we think it may be possible to get 10 billion as an emergency supplemental appropriation in the fiscal 20 budget, that would go directly to the schools with the highest percentage, really 70% or greater eligible for free and reduced lunch.

I’m interested in your thoughts on this, because I think as Laura mentioned, as Benny mentioned, H.R.2 which is the Infrastructure Stimulus bill, we think it’s going to pass sooner rather than later. But it’s not going to pass yet. So we think that the first step will be rec dollars to the highest poverty districts. But I wanted you to see kind of the politics of this and partly why we at the RASIC Coalition are so eager to work with you all on these issues.

The house, as Benny said, gets it. It has to pass the Senate. So 15 States have 25% of their public students attending where 25% or more are rural. So you can see, I stuck that line in there and you can see these are the 15, that are the long bars. So six of them are in the South, three are in the Northeast, two are Western, that’s Alaska and Montana and four are Midwestern. So I mean, part of what’s interesting about that is, that’s an interesting coalition in and of itself.

That’s a very diverse group. So I think that with Senate offices hearing from rural communities about the importance of infrastructure and H.R.2, but also in an immediate set of funds that’s very highly targeted to the very poorest school districts, I think it will be a winning argument. I’d love to listen and participate as I can in thinking through how we get the rural voices more loudly, sort of there in this coalition.

I think Congressman Thompson’s point about the vendors is important. We actually, in our coalition we’ve got civic groups, we’ve got industry groups, we’ve got labor and we’ve got education. Part of what we know is that while we need everybody in order to get the dollars, we are going to have to be vigilant when the dollars appear. But I think, let’s really figure out how to work together to get those dollars. I want to invite everybody to join the coalition.

You can look at our website, buildusschools.org. It doesn’t cost anything to join. We welcome you and we’ve got a call on Monday morning at, I think it’s at 10 Eastern, where we’re talking about a strategy to try to get some emergency dollars out to the poorest districts first. So with that, I want to stop. I’m happy to take any questions and really look forward to your discussion.

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