Building Toward Equitable Schools for the 21st Century

By: Loredana Valtierra, U.S. Department of Education Policy Advisor

As schools reopened during the COVID-19 pandemic, indoor air quality arose as a top concern among K-12 education stakeholders. Many school administrators, parents, and others in school communities were wondering: What should we do to address indoor air quality? What will help most when school buildings are old? Do we need HVAC upgrades to comply with the highest recommended standard of air ventilation, and aren’t those expensive? 

The pandemic put a spotlight on the importance of healthy learning environments for all students. But many people within the K-12 education community – including advocates, educators, and students – have been raising their voices to improve the physical state of schools for a long time, highlighting the inequality between schools in low-income neighborhoods and the impacts it has on their education, compared to those in affluent communities. School building needs often go far beyond HVAC upgrades, especially in low-income communities and communities of color. The 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure by the American Society of Civil Engineers rated the Nation’s school buildings as a D-plus. We know that physical improvements to school buildings are important, as there is significant evidence that connects how lighting, temperature, noise pollution, access to green space, and more contribute to student learning and educator morale and attendance. 

This research underscores the urgent need to provide safe, healthy, sustainable, and equitable learning environments for all students. We recently commemorated the 69th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. At the time of that historic decision, many segregated Black schools lacked libraries, cafeterias, gymnasiums, and running water and electricity. The Supreme Court ruled that public education, when offered, must be made available to all on equal terms. Nearly 70 years later, we still haven’t fully delivered on Brown’s promise. Too many school buildings today face the same problems they did seven decades ago–including with inconsistent access to clean water and air–and this has resulted in unequal access to high-quality learning and physical wellbeing for too many students of color and students from low-income backgrounds.

To help States address these challenges in their highest-need school districts, the U.S. Department of Education is proud to announce two grant programs: the Supporting America’s School Infrastructure (SASI) grant and the National Center on School Infrastructure (NCSI) grant. 

The purpose of the SASI program is to increase the capacity of States to support high-need school districts and schools in leveraging Federal, State, and local resources to improve school facilities and environments through infrastructure improvements, and to help advance school facilities that are safe, healthy, sustainable, and equitable learning environments for all students. For FY 2023, the Department expects to award approximately $40 million in 8-13 new grants under this competition. Eligible entities to receive grants include State Education Agencies (SEAs) and State entities other than the SEA that have authority over or responsibility for education facilities. For more information on SASI, see the Notice Inviting Applications.

The NCSI program will establish a national center on school infrastructure that will serve as a clearinghouse of resources for States and school districts related to improving and developing safe, healthy, sustainable, and equitable infrastructure, and provide technical assistance to SASI grantees and high-need LEAs seeking to leverage all available resources to improve public school facilities for all students. For FY 2023, the Department expects to award approximately $2 million annually for one new grant under this competition. For more information on NCSI, see the Notice Inviting Applications.

Through these programs, the Department seeks to advance our commitment to healthy school buildings for all–so that all students can benefit from the wide range of benefits that come from safe and healthy learning environments. Applications for both grant programs are due August 7. For more information on the School Infrastructure Program (SIP) grants, including pre-application webinars, see the SIP website.