America's public schools are beset by water and fire damage, termite infestation, peeling lead-based paint and unsanitary plumbing--and the repair bill would run an estimated $112 billion, the General Accounting Office reported Wednesday.
About 14 million students across the country are required to attend schools where at least one building is in such bad shape that it should undergo extensive repairs or be replaced, according to the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress.
"These are not just cosmetic concerns," said Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.), who requested the first such effort to evaluate the state of the nation's school facilities in 30 years. "When we speak of major repair needs, we are referring to conditions that are unsafe or even harmful to the safety and well-being of our children."
The GAO report was released on the same day that Education Secretary Richard W. Riley, in his annual address on the state of American education, applauded the progress students are making on reading, math and science scores. The nation is "moving from being a nation at risk to a nation with a hopeful future," he said in a speech delivered at a school in Arlington, Va., just outside Washington.
Riley was joined by former Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell, who in 1983 first declared America a "nation at risk." The two men agreed that schools are moving in the right direction, thanks to major efforts at the local, state and federal levels.
At a press conference after release of the GAO report, Moseley-Braun and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said that miserable conditions at tens of thousands of schools endanger academic opportunities. She pointed to a photo of a classroom with peeling lead paint on the walls and broken light fixtures. The slogan "Academic Excellence" was posted over the blackboard. "How can you have academic success sitting in a room like this?" she asked.