Let's say your school buildings need fixing up. Let's also say this problem has been the case for decades and there's a machine-like city government, a neoliberal school district leadership, large teacher unions with multiple tendencies, trade unions with a lot of sway, and a powerful coalition of community organizations all dealing with the issue in their various ways. What's the strategy for socialists here?
I'm talking of course about Philadelphia, which is a terrain I know best. But this question is probably relevant for medium-large cities dealing with school infrastructure issues--or really any district dealing with bad school buildings and low revenue, whether urban, rural, or suburban. Given that 53% of school buildings need some kind of repair this is a common issue and the situation in Philadelphia might have similarities to other areas.
As I see it there are two big problems to deal with: revenue and accountability. Socialists need to consider both of these in their strategy. Here's what I think that looks like.
The revenue problem should be familiar. School building repairs are expensive. HVAC systems, electrical, roofing, plumbing, environmental hazard remediation--we're talking millions and millions of dollars. In Philadelphia it's in the billions. But what kind of money is this, exactly? Capital expenditure. Rather than year to year costs of operation, building repairs and maintenance are big money projects that happen on their own schedules, which means that the money needed to pay for them works differently than the money used for things like salaries, benefits, and supplies.
In our particular kind of US late racial capitalism, school building capital expenditures get financed through loans that school districts take out from Wall Street. These loans are called municipal bonds. The school district is the borrower. The lenders are wealthy ruling class people who park their money in deals with local and state governments because (1) the money they can make in interest payments in tax free and (2) they know that these local governments won't go under or go bankrupt like private companies will.
Note that school building finance doesn't happen through federal policy. Even if Biden's big infrastructure package goes through, the way this money works is that districts take out loans which are then repaid using the federal money (sometimes). Also there's no long-term structure in place to deal with federal allocations in the future. There's no national policy on school building infrastructure. Not even a Green New Deal for Schools, in its current iteration, has such a policy. On the revenue question, this means two things.
1. When talking about revenue for school building infrastructure, we have to talk about loans--their politics, practice, and fine-grained details. That means dealing with municipal bonds, Wall Street, interest rates, and the bond issuance process. This takes political education. We have to do the work to articulate connections by at least making short and medium term demands that intervene in this situation. For instance: we should push for no-cost, long-term loans from public entities like the Federal Reserve or an infrastructure authority rather than relying on Wall Street when it comes to school district loan issuance. If a private loan is the only option, we should push for no fees, low rates, etc.
2. Because there's no federal policy, we have to focus on state and local apparatuses that deal with school building money: who issues the bond, who makes money on it, who sets the terms, how do states play a role, and who will manage the money when it comes in? In a word, we have to focus simultaneously on accountability.
There are complex apparatuses at work when it comes to school building maintenance. A lot of people make a lot of decisions as part of a lot of different government entities at the state and local levels. These people are the ones responsible for making sure school buildings are safe and up to date. It's not easy to figure out who these people are or how their decisions get made within hyperlocal governments like school districts. And communities of parents, students, teachers, administrators, and advocates have lost trust in these leaders' abilities to do a good job.
This is a massive problem because if our demands are to get revenue, but the people in charge of managing that revenue when it comes in are bad at it, then it doesn't matter if we get our revenue--it'll be wasted, spent on the wrong things, and/or managed poorly. We need to fight for accountability at the same time as we fight for revenue.
If a revenue campaign doesn't consider accountability, we also risk alienating large numbers of allies who have been fighting for accountability tooth and nail for years. I'm thinking of parents in particular. When groups come out calling for revenue, parents furrow their brows and say "what? You want to give our district--the same district that got us into this mess--more money? To do what?" They have a good point. In Philly, our district has had multiple opportunities spanning the 2008 and 2020 crises to use big federal relief money to fix school buildings. It didn't happen.
What would a revenue + accountability campaign to fix school buildings look like? That's the concrete question. Each category needs a concrete demand with tactics to go along with them. I don't know the answer to this question but I can give examples.
A revenue campaign to fix school buildings will need to consider loans as a terrain. A campaign I was working on with LILAC and ACRE was an example of this: we wanted the Federal Reserve to provide no-cost, long-term loans to the School District of Philadelphia. This didn't work out for a number of reasons, chief among them that the apparatus that could've handled such a demand was closed in December 2020. With no federal infrastructure lending authority for school buildings and Pennsylvania's state reimbursement program currently closed for new applications, and no functioning local public bank to lend the district money, there's not a lot of room to maneuver here.
If, however, there happened to be a push for a big bond issuance at the local level to fix these problems (rather than a small one, like we've seen recently), we should pay attention to and put pressure on the process behind this bond issuance: who will set the terms? What'll the interest rate be? Who are the consultants? How'll the bonds be paid back? Who are the lenders? What's the indenture? Which banks will be involved? We can make demands for the lowest interest rate possible, for consultants to waive their fees, for banks to waive their origination fees, for federal funds to pay the bonds back rather than local tax revenues that would add to the district's debt service (this is where the GND comes in most explicitly).
Next comes the accountability question. The neat thing about a bond issuance is that the entire city and district school structure gets reviewed in the terms of the deal. Summaries of these bodies are literally written into the issuance. When asking the above questions about the bond issuance, we can also ask what city and district structures will be accountable for this money? Who will be the ones to spend it? Specifically, where in the school district's Office of Operations will people be held responsible? Will it be the Office of Capital Programs? The Department of Facilities Management and Services? We can demand that relevant local leaders will hold weekly press conferences to update the community on progress, which projects are getting attention, which contractors are getting contracts, eg.
I think socialists should consider these things as we think about how to fight for school buildings.