Stateline Story

Uphill Battle Seen For Clinton School Renovation Plan

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton asked Congress in his State of the Union address to approve a $1.3 billion emergency renovation fund to pay for school construction in the states. Analysts say prospects for its approval, at least in the form the White House envisions, appear slim.

"I propose to help 5,000 schools a year make immediate, urgent repairs. And, again, to help build or modernize 6,000 schools, to get students out of trailers and into high-tech classrooms," he said.

Clinton has tried to get a similar proposal passed for the last two years without success. State legislators say they could use some assistance from Washington, but they do not want to see the state role in education usurped.

"Our guys (state lawmakers) basically think they would take any form of federal assistance if they can make it dovetail with existing state programs," said David Shreve, policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "What they don't want to see is a parallel program with the federal government issuing funds along side the states."

More than 40 states have funds for school construction.

Clinton told stateline.org in an online Q&A last week he has worked to reshape the federal role in education and "nearly doubled the federal investment" since he entered office in 1993.

Washington provides seven percent of the nation's education budget.

"Federal dollars are now invested in proven strategies for reform such as reducing class size, improving teacher quality and fixing failing schools," he said.

At a White House briefing, Maria Echaveste, Clinton's deputy chief of staff, said the president will repackage his school construction proposal as a grant/loan program that will be handled as an appropriation.

For the past two years the administration has pushed a tax proposal to help localities issue bonds but Congress has rejected it. This year, Clinton will build on his previous proposal of $3.7 billion to help pay the interest on school construction bonds to include an additional $1.3 billion for emergency repairs and renovations over the next five years.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the average school building is 42 years old.

Rep. Bill Goodling, Chairman of the U.S. House Education Committee would rather see existing funds reshuffled than the proposed loan program.

"The President vetoed a $1.4 billion tax proposal last year that would have given school districts more flexibility to issue bonds and build schools," Goodling , a Pennsylvania Republican, said in a statement. "Rather than providing $1.3 billion for grants for construction or renovation of buildings, we should put funding into the IDEA program for disabled children. That will free up additional state and local funds for buildings."

Republicans on the U.S. House Budget Committee claim Clinton's proposal is inconsistent with his past policy. They point to his 1996 budget in which he asked Congress to rescind the "Education Infrastructure Act" because he argued school construction is a state and local responsibility.

The Department of Education wrote in the budget justification for that year "we are opposed to the creation of a new Federal grant program for school construction."

Shreve said that while each state constitution details a state government role in education, there is nothing in the U.S. or state constitutions that imply the federal government has a role.

"The Feds are continuing to erode the state role by enhancing a direct relationship between the federal government and local school districts," he said.

Shreve says a better solution than Clinton's plan would be to transfer federal resources to the states and set up a revolving loan fund program in each state. The state would have to match some of the funds and then would be responsible for administering the loan fund in compliance with priorities set up by the federal government. This is something state houses could live with, he says.