Bigger than Bridges: Scaled-down Infrastructure Bill Would Help, But More Is Needed to Support Families and Students

When we last discussed the proposed American Jobs Plan in April, we described it as “one of the most transformative education bills in a generation.” However, the bipartisan infrastructure proposal now under consideration — and likely to become enacted legislation — is less than a third its size and removes much of the truly transformative measures of the original.  

That’s because infrastructure is more than construction projects. Infrastructure means investments in an inclusive economy that helps families out of poverty and supports students in school. President’s Biden’s American Families Plan, also under consideration by Congress, takes critical policy steps to expand access to education and childcare. By extending relief aid, funding education and childcare, it fights poverty and helps to close racial and gender opportunity gaps, which is significantly absent from the companion infrastructure legislation.  

“In this moment of potential transformation, we can defy the selfish ideology of scarcity and acknowledge that we have enough resources in this great country to take care of and support all of our citizens.”
— Nikole Hannah-Jones, Loving Cities Index Report

The current proposal no longer funds school construction and modernization, including ventilation and classroom size 

One of the infrastructure proposal’s most unfortunate cuts is the removal of all building construction and modernization, which would have dedicated billions of dollars to construct and retrofit public schools across the country and targeted low-income and BIPOC communities for additional resources. With COVID-19 still present, it’s unacceptable that so many schools have improper ventilation and cramped classrooms with little prospect of improvement absent federal support. 

The proposal does provide some important elements for creating Loving Cities for our children

Electric school buses to improve air quality for children and staff. Exhaust from diesel engines can cause chronic conditions like asthma, which has killed hundreds of children over the past few years. This bill will purchase thousands of zero-emissions and low-emissions school buses — insufficient to replace the entire U.S. fleet of almost a half million, but it’s a start. 

More schools and communities will finally have cleaner drinking water. Currently, up to 400,000 schools and day care centers don’t have safe drinking water. With a $55 billion investment, every lead pipe and service line in the nation will be replaced, and toxic chemicals like PFAS will be removed. 

High-speed internet will be made available to all. The pandemic has been a serious wakeup call about the digital divide, which disproportionately affects low-income and BIPOC neighborhoods in cities, rural areas, and on reservations. $65 billion will ensure high-speed lines will be extended and will require service providers to offer low-cost options. 

Some segregated communities will be reconnected. While the size of investment is much smaller than the original proposal, the current plan dedicates $1 billion to reconnecting neighborhoods that have been divided by highways and other barriers, often erected during the height of racial segregation and redlining policies. To the extent that this program is successful, we will see positive integration effects within and between school districts. 

Children and families will have an easier, cleaner and safer commute on public transit. Thousands of students in every major city use public transit to get to and from school each day. This proposal’s $39 billion is, according to the White House, the largest federal investment in public transit in history. The funds will go to replacing buses and light rail cars, expanding service to new areas, and making more stations accessible. 

We encourage states and cities to pursue many of the important goals that the original proposal featured, from universal childcare to expanded parks to new public housing construction. 

A first step, but not enough on its own 

These proposals are by themselves significant, but pale in comparison to the urgency of the needs that our schools and communities face. Schott’s own calculation for a Racial Equity Stimulus puts the scope of needed federal resources in the $10-12 trillion range. Beyond the immediate debate over the infrastructure plan, it’s incumbent upon every elected official to seize this moment of possibility and make the kind of bold investments that will remake our nation for the better.  

For all the problems facing our classrooms, schools, and communities, the barrier isn’t a lack of good policy ideas, but a lack of political will. That’s a barrier only grassroots organizing can overcome. That’s why we urge our philanthropic partners to support the education justice movement over the long haul: only through empowered parents, youth, and communities will we secure the equitable and just schools everyone deserves.