Every 26 seconds, a student drops out of high school in the United States. National test scores reveal that half of all low-income fourth graders cannot read. Given such alarming statistics, you’d think that helping at-risk kids would be the top education-related priority on Capitol Hill.
Apparently not. As far as Congress is concerned, the real problem with public education in America is that it’s not environmentally friendly enough.
On Wednesday, the House passed the “21st Century Green High-Performing Public School Facilities Act,” a $6.4 billion school-construction program. Essentially, it’s a regulatory gift bag for environmental groups and labor unions
The legislation creates a new federal grant program to provide states and local school districts with money to build and modernize schools. Among the reasons offered by Chairman George Miller’s Education and Labor Committee for supporting the legislation: to “create jobs in the construction industry” and make “schools that are more energy efficient and reliant on renewable resources of energy” to reduce “emissions that contribute to global warming.
Under the plan, states and localities would be required to use federal dollars to make schools consistent with environmental standards established by the U.S. Green Building Council. States also would receive funding to encourage state agencies to track public schools’ carbon “footprints” and energy efficiency. In all, the Congressional Budget Office projects the program would cost $20.3 billion over five years.
Environmental groups aren’t the only special interests the legislation rewards. Labor unions win, too. The legislation includes the Depression-era Davis-Bacon prevailing-wage regulations, which require projects funded by the program to pay workers wages at least equal to similar projects in the locality.
Just for good measure, the House approved an amendment sponsored by Rep. Bart Stupak (D., Mich.) that requires school-construction projects to use only American-made steel. This limits flexibility and drives up the cost.
This is the first major K-12 education package to pass the House this Congress — which shows what liberals’ true priorities are.
For years, liberals have blamed the “under-funding” of No Child Left Behind for many problems in American education. (In fact, federal spending on K-12 education is set to grow by 36 percent during the Bush presidency.) But instead of focusing on hiring more teachers or giving more money to high-poverty schools, the House chose to invest in building environmentally friendly schools. In fact, this $6 billion new program is nearly half as large as the entire Title I program, the main federal education program geared toward helping kids in high-poverty schools.
Just imagine what good that $6.4 billion could do as scholarships to disadvantaged kids. More than 600,000 kids could receive scholarships worth $10,000 a piece to escape low-performing public schools and attend a school of their parents’ choice. Beyond helping these students, the exodus from the public-school system would ease crowding (reducing the need for new buildings) and relieve state and local education budgets. State and local policymakers then could decide how to use the saved money to improve education.
Of course, the Green Schools legislation isn’t actually meant to improve education. The real purpose is to expand federal power, and give Congress more control over decisions once left to those at the local level. Anyone listening to the floor debate over H.R. 3021 might have thought they were watching a school-board meeting. Fixing the plumbing in your local public school shouldn’t be a congressional concern.
Fortunately, President Bush is expected to veto the legislation if it reaches his desk, and Senate action is unlikely. So Americans shouldn’t expect to see any federally mandated “green” schools soon. But it should serve as a preview of what Congress is planning for education. It may earn an “A” from liberal interest groups, but it deserves an “F” from parents and taxpayers.
— Dan Lips is a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.