America’s schools are crumbling – what will it take to fix them?

When I was asked to support a federal lawsuit that says Detroit’s deteriorating schools were having a negative impact on students’ ability to learn, the decision was a no-brainer.

Detroit’s schools are so old and raggedy that last year the city’s schools chief, Nikolai Vitti, ordered the water shut off across the district due to lead and copper risks from antiquated plumbing. By mid-September, elevated levels of copper and lead were confirmed in 57 of 86 schools tested.

Safe water isn’t the only problem in Detroit schools. A 2018 assessment found that it would cost about US$500 million to bring Detroit’s schools into a state of repair – a figure that could grow to $1.4 billion if the school district waits another five years to address the problems. A school board official concluded that the district would have to “pick and choose” which repairs to make because there isn’t enough money to make them all.

Even though a federal judge tossed out the lawsuit that I supported, the judge recognized how the deteriorating state of Detroit’s schools impact student learning. The central argument of the lawsuit is that children have a constitutional right to literacy, and that the state was violating that right by failing to provide enough resources for Detroit’s school system.

“The conditions and outcomes of Plaintiffs’ schools, as alleged, are nothing short of devastating,” U.S. District Court Judge Stephen J. Murphy III wrote. “When a child who could be taught to read goes untaught, the child suffers a lasting injury – and so does society.”

But Judge Murphy found that the “deplorable and unsafe conditions” that deny children access to literacy were not shown to stem from “irrational” decisions of the State. The case has been appealed to the U.S. 6th Circuit.

Detroit’s dilemma is not unique.

Water coolers were brought in to dozens of Detroit public schools in 2018 after the discovery of elevated levels of lead or copper in school drinking fountains. Paul Sancya/AP
Before I became a professor of educational leadership and policy, I served as assistant state superintendent for research and policy in the Michigan Department of Education. I know a thing or two about how poor school facilities can have an effect on student learning. One recent study, for instance, found that in schools without air conditioning, for every one Fahrenheit degree increase in school year temperature, the amount learned that year goes down by 1 percent.

Crumbling schools can be found throughout the nation. These schools are disproportionately attended by low-income children of color. And it’s been that way for a while. For instance, a 1996 report by the General Accounting Office found that schools in “unsatisfactory physical and environmental condition” were “concentrated in central cities and serve large populations of poor or minority students.”

A 2014 Department of Education study found that it would cost about $197 billion to bring the nation’s deteriorating public schools into good condition.

The harshness of the conditions that have plagued the nation’s schools was captured in a case known as Williams v. California, a class action lawsuit that the ACLU filed in 2000 on behalf of California’s low-income students of color.

“The school has no air conditioning. On hot days classroom temperatures climb into the 90s,” the lawsuit stated in reference to the grim conditions at Luther Burbank middle school in San Francisco. “The school heating system does not work well. In winter, children often wear coats, hats, and gloves during class to keep warm.”