The President’s Plan for the Economy and Education

Imagine Steve Jobs trying to design the next generation of tablet computers using mainframe hardware from the Eisenhower administration. Or American automakers trying to out-engineer foreign competitors on an assembly line with equipment from the 1960s.

Unfortunately, just such antiquated facilities and barriers to innovation exist today in precisely the institutions that can least afford it: our nation’s public schools. The digital age has now penetrated virtually every nook of American life, with the exception of many public schools.

The average public school building in the United States is more than 40 years old. Nationwide, cash-strapped school districts face an enormous $270 billion backlog of deferred maintenance and repairs.

On Tuesday, President Obama spoke at Abraham Lincoln High School in Denver about the need to urgently modernize public schools, and the importance of keeping teachers in the classroom, instead of in unemployment lines.

In the American Jobs Act, President Obama proposes to invest $30 billion to repair and modernize public schools and community colleges, putting hundreds of thousands of unemployed construction workers, engineers, boiler repairmen, and electrical workers back to work. He proposed an additional $30 billion to keep hundreds of thousands of educators facing potential layoffs and furloughs on the job.

Modernizing and repairing our schools is a classic win-win solution. It benefits everyone — children, communities, and construction workers who need work.

Tragically, children in the nation’s poorest school districts often attend schools with crumbling ceilings, overcrowded classrooms, and facilities that lack basic wiring infrastructure for computers and other modern-day technology. That’s no way to provide a world-class education — and in today’s global economy, a country that out-educates America will out-compete us.

Abraham Lincoln High School opened in 1960. Some of its science labs lack sinks — and have had only minor plumbing renovation in the last 51 years. Despite district and school efforts to upgrade equipment and software, the school’s computer lab — like many in the Denver Public Schools — is not designed to support small-group learning and the acquisition of 21st century skills.

Denver Public Schools has already identified $425 million in major repair and modernization projects districtwide that could be started within the next year, from replacing aging boilers and leaking roofs to improving educational technology.

This is not a partisan issue. The physical conditions at some aging schools today are unacceptable. They are no place for children to learn.

The president’s jobs bill would modernize at least 35,000 schools, or about one out of every three public schools in the United States. In Colorado, the jobs bill would provide $265 million to put as many as 3,400 construction workers back on the job modernizing Colorado’s schools. Denver Public Schools alone would receive up to $75.5 million.

Nationwide, $25 billion would go to upgrading existing public school facilities (including charter schools), with $5 billion invested in modernizing community colleges. The federal government will not fund new construction or pick the schools to modernize. Those decisions will be left entirely to states and districts with knowledge of local needs.

Projections from proposals similar to the president’s plan suggest it could create as many as 300,000 jobs in the construction trades nationwide.

While modernization could put a small army of Americans back to work rebuilding and upgrading our schools, looming teacher layoffs could have a devastating impact in the classroom.

As many as 280,000 education jobs may be on the chopping block in the upcoming school year due to multibillion-dollar state and local budget shortfalls. But under the jobs bill, Colorado would receive $478 million to support and protect up to 7,000 educator jobs.

As the bar for educational success rises worldwide in the knowledge economy, this is no time to be laying off scores of teachers and early childhood educators.

Already, financially pinched school districts are reducing class time, shortening the school calendar, cutting after-school programs and early childhood education, and reducing top-notch arts and music instruction.

President Obama recently shared the story of Jason Chuong, a Philadelphia music teacher who uses plastic buckets to teach his students to play percussion — because he only has a $100 out-of-pocket budget to cover music instruction at seven schools.

The path to prosperity, the way to win the future, is to invest wisely in schools, remembering that children get only one chance at an education.

That’s why the president’s plan to modernize our schools for the 21st century and minimize teacher layoffs is the right plan, at the right time. We cannot afford to do less.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education.

The following op-ed appeared in the Denver Post on September 28.


  1. Quote: “The average public school building in the United States is more than 40 years old.” My house is 32 years old and still in great condition. So, you’re saying if kids were in newer buildings their test scores would be higher? Maybe you should concentrate on getting high test scores? Maybe you should concentrate more on getting better teachers? Maybe you should concentrate on doing the right things instead of doing the easy things … like building new buildings? Maybe you should find ways to reduce the size of the Dept of Education to save us hard working taxpayers some money? Maybe you should step inside the common sense square more often?

    • “Modernization and repairs”…Really Chuckzilla? You have a problem with that? Its funny how it was okay for your generation to get a good education with adequate supplies but now that you dont need it, I guess we should just screw the kids that need it now. Where is your common sense? These teachers work hard and have to put much of there own resources in to cover the lack of money supplied by the state, all while living an extremely modest life, without any of the perks most workers have. Get real.

    • So, your house is 32 years old and in great condition; but, how did it get that way? You, I am quite positive, have had to put out some money in order to keep it in great condition. That is all the President is saying. He is not saying that kids only learn more in newer buildings; but, he is saying that we have to keep the existing 40-year old buildings up to the standards of the times rather than expect children to learn in conditions presented 40 years ago when technology has advanced so greatly. Children need their schools to be more in line with the times in order to properly learn. Unfortunately, many children do not have the luxury of owning their own laptop or desktop computer or having an instrument to practice on at home; so, if school is the only place where they can get these objects and we must pay taxes to the state and county for the schools, I don’t see why my money should not be spent toward providing them a better education rather than worry about a pothole in the road when I can drive around it. You cannot drive around a child’s education.

  2. Dear Secretary Duncan:

    Michigan’s College Access programs are vital to any chance we have of economic recovery and growth. Our state’s struggling economy should not be the reason that Michigan’s most disadvantaged children will lose the opportunity to go to college. Reforming education is not an easy task and student achievement should always be the first priority, particularly when weighed against policy that is counter to that goal. Please help us keep the limited resources we have in Michigan to do our part in rebuilding the economy and education by waiving the maintenance of effort requirement for the College Access Challenge Grant. Thank you.

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