When boilers failed at multiple public schools in Baltimore in 2018, teachers adapted by bringing in space heaters to warm shivering students’ hands. Kids huddled in their winter coats indoors. A full 60 schools had problems, though administrators were only forced to close eight that had major mechanical irregularities to heating problems, according to The Baltimore Sun.
The infrastructure failures of Baltimore schools symbolize the overall lack of investment in black-majority cities and the people in them. People who blame black leadership and residents’ choices for the conditions of their neighborhoods and schools obviously won’t invest in them. No less than the president of the United States faulted the leadership of the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, representative for Maryland’s 7th Congressional District, for what the president called a “rat and rodent infested mess.”
When something goes wrong in black neighborhoods, it isn’t long before you hear the reflexive criticism “it all starts at home,” or “if only they weren’t that way” — “they” referring to black people. Sure, poverty, crime and educational parity are real issues that black people face, but how high can we fly if the very ground beneath us is crumbling?
A January 2020 report by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Applied Public Research found that “[p]roblems with heat and cooling accounted for lost school time of more than 1.2 million hours, equivalent to more than 179,000 days, over the last 5 years, representing about 80% of the time missed.” The condition of a public school reflects more about the value that we as Americans see in that school, than the moral failings of the kids who attend it. Modern, well-functioning facilities reflect our willingness to walk the walk and put our public dollars into what we say we value. Princeton University professor and philosopher Cornel West often says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Well, shiny new buildings and working HVAC systems is what educational love looks like in public.
Students deserve the love that West speaks of. Society is failing public schools way more than public schools are failing students. By definition, giving black and brown children a fair chance at success in school and life means that we must fix the infrastructure that helps keep the playing field even.
In September of 2018, Detroit school leaders had to shut off the drinking water in all schools after elevated levels of lead or copper were found in the water in dozens of facilities. As my Brookings Institution colleague Joseph Kane has pointed out, decades of underinvestment in infrastructure have resulted in failing water systems across the country in places like Detroit, New Orleans and Flint. We constantly ask students to take standardized tests, but ignore other kinds of assessments. As Kane writes, the “lack of frequent, rigorous testing [for infrastructure] and precise metrics make it hard to detect any potential infrastructure shortfalls.” And yet, in all these cities, education reform’s focus on teachers and students misplaces blame. Before entering a discussion about failing district leadership, principals, teachers and students, check if these same groups work or learn in a school with clean water, working HVAC systems and a working roof over their heads. Maybe decent infrastructure doesn’t create academic achievement on its own, but failing infrastructure can help undermine it.
Just think how high students will be able to fly if Congress passes an infrastructure bill that includes funding to repair schools across the country.
“We tell children that education is important, they should study, it’s important to their own self-fulfillment and to that of our country, and yet we send some of them to schools that are so substandard that it sends a different message,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last week, commenting on the new “Moving Forward Infrastructure Framework” on Capitol Hill. The comments came a day after Pelosi laid out the $760 billion legislative framework for a federal infrastructure plan, which includes spending for school construction. The framework would create a $70 billion grant program and a $30 billion tax credit bond program to incentivize and subsidize new construction in high-poverty districts, according to reporting by the policy news site, Roll Call.
Conservatives repeatedly discourage federal involvement in public education, warning against government overreach. But when states create or tolerate wide variations in school infrastructure, they also create inequities between students. The Johns Hopkins University research team ranked Baltimore dead last in their study; the city has the lowest percentage of schools in good or superior condition. Although more than half the schools in three-quarters of Maryland’s counties met this high standard, in the black-majority city of Baltimore, “just 17% of the schools were found to be in ‘good’ or ‘superior’ condition.”
The low percentage isn’t due to a lack of leadership. It’s because black communities and people are devalued.
In 2018, my own research published at the Brookings Institution found homes in black-majority neighborhoods are valued, on average, at $48,000 less than homes of similar quality with similar amenities in white neighborhoods. My research also revealed that racism robbed these neighborhoods of $156 billion of cumulative revenue, much of which would have gone into the tax coffers of municipalities for school infrastructure.
Pelosi’s infrastructure plan has little chance of getting the votes it needs to pass from a Republican-dominated Senate after the tumultuous impeachment trial that ultimately acquitted Donald Trump of high crimes and misdemeanors. But communities should not let Washington dysfunction prevent them from fighting to include school infrastructure improvements, if we expect to gain parity.
The devaluation of black people results in misplaced blame for underachievement — and in broken boilers and decaying pipes. It’s past time we called the plumber.
This story about school infrastructure was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.