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Trump's Talk of Infrastructure Leaves Out Schools

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As President Trump talked up his $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan in his first State of the Union Tuesday night, he said nothing about whether he would include public schools in any large-scale federal push to improve infrastructure. The president's discussion lacked details, but he did namecheck transportation-related infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and highways.

That he didn't acknowledge anything about the infrastructure needs of schools left Mary Filardo, the executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, disappointed. Filardo's organization, which advocates for more public investments in K-12 school facilities, is part of a newly formed group to lobby for K-12 schools to be included in any federal infrastructure plan.

"We think that's really got to be in it, and, hopefully, the president knows that his list was short," Filardo said Wednesday. "Infrastructure isn't just about transportation."

The National Alliance For Public Charter Schools also voiced concern about the absence of public school facilities in a leaked version of the administration's infrastructure plan.

"Modernizing America's public schools could be a lasting legacy for this President and his Administration given their focus and interest in expanding school choice," the group said in a statement on Tuesday.

The group urged the White House to include charter school facilities in the eventual infrastructure proposal it sends to Congress, saying that families shouldn't have to choose between high-quality facilities and a high-quality education.

"Access to facilities and funding is a major concern for charter schools, which, unlike their district-operated counterparts, don't receive funding for buildings or needed site improvements from most state and local governments," the group wrote. "Without equitable access to public buildings and funding, many charter schools are forced to operate in facilities that were never designed to be schools—and financing these facilities often requires charter schools to divert funding that would be better spent on curriculum, teachers and classroom instruction. This is particularly problematic because most charter schools already receive lower per-pupil allocations than district-run schools."

But it's not just Trump, who has included schools in the past in talking about rebuilding the nation's infrastructure, who must be persuaded, Filardo said. Historically, schools have not been at the forefront during federal infrastructure discussions.

One key reason for that is that the majority of funding for school construction and maintenance comes from local sources, and there is hesitance to increase the federal footprint in education, she said.

But Filardo said she remains optimistic that any eventual infrastructure plan will include money for K-12 schools. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave public school infrastructure a D-plus on its report card last year. 

Related: Education Week's special report on school facilities.

"We are going to keep pushing to make sure that schools are in that definition of infrastructure," she said.

In his speech, Trump did not go into details on the proposed $1.5 trillion in new infrastructure investments to "build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways and waterways all across our land."

"Every federal dollar should be leveraged by partnering with state and local governments, and, where appropriate, tapping into private sector investment to permanently fix the infrastructure deficit," the president said. 

Earlier this year, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, along with Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and 23 other Democrats wrote the president asking for the federal government to partner with states on "innovative financing mechanisms," to address K-12 infrastructure needs.

As Politics K-12 has reported earlier this month, Democrats have also pushed a proposal for $100 billion in investment in school infrastructure, which they say would generate nearly 1.9 million jobs. (The new advocacy group, the [Re] Build America's School Infrastructure Coalition, or BASIC, made a pitch similar to the Democratic plan in its launch earlier this week.)

Filardo said BASIC's members will work with both Republican and Democratic members of Congress to ensure that schools remain part of the deliberations and make it into any final infrastructure plan.

"I think we will definitely make progress in bringing the school infrastructure piece to the infrastructure table and helping people to understand that from an economic prosperity, jobs, and education and health [perspective]...this is a real opportunity to improve lives and communities." 

Photo caption: Asbestos lines the ceiling above the coal furnace in Fayette County, West Virginia. --Doyle Maurer/Education Week

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