F.A.S.T. stimulus plan: Fix schools, put people back to work

America could put hundreds of thousands of people back to work by implementing a proposed stimulus program called F.A.S.T. The acronym stands for “Fix America’s Schools Today,” and it’s a plan that even the most hard-line budget hawk should have a tough time saying no to.

Released in August 2011 by the 21st Century School Fund and the Economic Policy Institute [EPI], FAST could immediately allocate $50 billion to repair and retrofit America’s schools, putting carpenters, electricians, construction workers, building technicians, boiler repairmen, electrical workers, roofers, plumbers, glaziers, painters, plasterers, laborers, and tile setters back to work.

Do we need it? See for yourself. Drive around any American city, eyeball some schools, go inside, and look at the floors, ceilings, walls, windows and lights. Or just ask your kids: Is their school cool enough in the summer and warm enough in the winter? What’s the quality of life in their school: Are there safety gaps? Do the bathrooms function? What’s broken, but never seems to get fixed?

Infrastructure problems in America’s schools are well documented, and repairs are long overdue. [A report card issued in 2010 by the American Society of Structural Engineers gave America’s school infrastructure a D.] The average age of America’s 100,000 schools is 40. School districts under financial pressure—and who isn’t?—often look to maintenance as a place to cut. The result of “chronic deferred maintenance,” according to to the General Accounting Office [GAO] and the American Society of Civil Engineers, can be  “energy inefficiencies, unsafe drinking water, water damage and moldy environments, poor air quality, inadequate fire alarms and fire safety, compromised building security, and structural dangers.”

Estimates of the cost of repairing the wide range of infrastructure problems in America’s schools range from $270 billion to $500 billion. EPI asserts that:

…construction and building repair generally create 9,000‒10,000 jobs per billion dollars spent. Eliminating even half of the entire backlog and improvements could eventually create more than two million jobs, over a period of years. Addressing even one-tenth of the needed improvements could immediately create half a million jobs.

Given the grim outlook for residential construction and the fact that 1.5 million construction workers are unemployed, a project of this magnitude would put hundreds of thousands of them back to work, which would have a large positive effect on the economy.

Specifically, FAST funds would be used for:

  • improving air quality and thermal comfort with improvements to heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems;
  •  stopping interior damage, including mold, and reducing energy costs with roof replacement and repair;
  • supporting technology, mechanical systems, and modern use of electricity with an electrical system modernization;
  • reducing water consumption, eliminating lead in water, meeting ADA requirements with bathroom and plumbing upgrades;
  • eliminating allergy and asthma triggers, making sure asbestos is contained or eliminated, and creating inviting classroom and school environments with plaster repair and painting;
  • saving energy and increasing daylight with window replacement;
  • improving the school grounds with improvements to outdoor learning and play areas, storm water management, landscaping, and environmental cleanup, when necessary;
  • reducing ongoing heating costs with energy-efficient boiler replacement;
  • installing solar panels, wind generators, and geothermal or other comparable clean energy generators; and
  • planning the work outlined above and any similar modifications necessary to reduce the consumption of electricity and energy, especially fossil fuels, including natural gas, oil, water, or coal.

Any other uses of the funds would be prohibited.

How F.A.S.T. would be funded

Watching budget hawks weasel out of this plan will be interesting. Its proponents have worked out a funding strategy that makes a great deal of sense—plus, it conforms to the prevailing [and often heartless] dogma of “PAYGO,” which requires any new spending to be offset elsewhere in the Federal budget.

This part’s a bit wonky, but it’s a key component that helps makes this plan battle ready. According to EPI:

The fastest way to launch the program would be to add money to existing funding formulas, such as Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. All 16,000 public school districts, including public charter schools, receive funds under Title I. For example, $50 billion could be allocated among them.

The nitty gritty of implementation—such as how to prioritize which districts get money—is spelled out in much more detail in the full FAST proposal.

With regard to PAYGO, initial funds allocated for FAST could be offset by “eliminating fossil fuel preferences, as in President Obama’s FY2012 budget,” says EPI, clearly referring to tax breaks for already rich oil, gas and coal producers.  “Closing these loopholes raises $46 billion over 10 years.”

Jared Bernstein—a former economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, and one of the masterminds behind FAST, puts it this way:

“It’s a smart way to get a lot of people who really need jobs back to work, fix a critical part of our institutional infrastructure, save energy costs, provide kids with a better, healthier learning environment, and do so in way that everyone can see and feel good about each morning when they drop their kids at school.”

F.A.S.T. is logical, and it has a lot of hard-to-oppose, Mom-and-apple-pie appeal. The question is: Are those two attributes enough? Anyone who’s serious about a jobs program would be wise to get on board. [F.A.S.T. appears to dovetail nicely, by the way, with a jobs plan recently proposed by Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowski.] We await words and actions  from President Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and enlightened lawmakers in support of this common-sense idea.