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School disrepair isn’t feds to fix

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, February 7, 1995

You would think the last election would have sent a clear message to members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle: The New American Majority wants a smaller, cheaper, less intrusive federal government.

Nevertheless, last week U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill., called for increased spending in a new federal program to patch the roofs and fix the plumbing in America’s public schools — needs she found in a report she requested from the General Accounting Office. The recently released GAO assessment found that one-third of America’s school buildings need repairs, renovations or modernization to ensure the health and safety of students or to comply with federal mandates. The price tag: $112 billion.

It doesn’t seem to matter to Moseley-Braun that the federal government is broke. She has caught “programitis,” a disease deeply rooted in the culture of Washington: Where there is a need, there must be a federal solution.

Those with educational programitis don¹t seem to mind that, historically and constitutionally, public education in America is a matter for state and local financing and control. Indeed, the federal government provides less than 10% of the money and, for most of our history, was involved only on the periphery of public education.

The U.S. has 50 state governments and more than 15,000 school districts to look after the 80,000 school buildings that house the 42 million students who attend America’s government-run public schools. Moseley-Braun has a better idea: She wants the federal government to look after roofs, foundations, windows, doors, plumbing, heating, electrical systems and acoustics in more than 25,000 school buildings that have one or more of these problems.

Another irony: Nearly $11 billion of the $112 billion in needed repairs and renovations are the result of unfunded federal mandates. About $6 billion is needed for ramps, special drinking fountains, specially fitted restrooms and other facilities to make schools accessible to Americans with disabilities; the rest is needed to remove substances considered by Congress (but not always by scientists) to be “hazardous” — such as asbestos, lead in paint or water, radon and others. This on top of nearly $4 billion already spent by the schools to comply with unfunded mandates.

Relimiting government means, among other things, restoring balance to America’s federal system. Balance requires the federal government to focus on issues that are national in scope and require a national solution — issues like fiscal and monetary policy, interstate commerce, international trade and national defense, but not for heaven’s sake, things like housing, rodent control, midnight basketball, and patching the school house roof.

Relimiting government may also mean eliminating government-run schools and letting “choice schools” financed by vouchers and run by families, neighborhoods, churches and synagogues, voluntary associations and private enterprises deliver public education. It is unlikely that “choice schools” competing for student vouchers would long survive if they permitted the kind of dreary, unattractive and underequipped buildings with the careless and slipshod maintenance found of GAO and commonly found in government housing and government office buildings.

It’s clearly time to try a whole new approach, not a new government program.

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