Dwight Evans: Update Philadelphia schools by amending tax credit law

Philadelphia schools recently issued a facilities report showing that the average student attends a school built in the year Brooklyn Dodger great Jackie Robinson stunned a Yankee Stadium crowd by stealing home during Game 1 of the World Series.

That was 1955.

This means our children go to the same aged, rundown K-12 facilities considered functionally obsolete by national standards a generation ago, when their parents attended the same dilapidated buildings.

The report puts a price tag on fixing this intolerable situation: $5 billion.

Philly isn’t alone. A 1995 federal survey showed that the average K-12 facility across America to be similarly obsolete. And studies indicate that students forced to attend these structures lose statistically one educational year.

There has been much talk in this past year about bipartisan cooperation on a major infrastructure program. And both presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, specifically said these investments must include modernizing school facilities.

And there is already a law in place that would help get this work done.

That law was used to great effect in 2014, when the federal government solicited proposals to modernize the Old Post Office near the White House. It was originally built in 1899 with public funds.

The winning bidder? Businessman Donald Trump. He used a financing approach authorized in a 1986 law championed by Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic House Speaker “Tip” O’Neil. Their bipartisan legislation gave federal rehabilitation tax credits to private investors that were equal to upwards of 20 percent of the modernizing costs for aged structures deemed “historic” under federal law.

The new Trump International Hotel at the Old Post Office is one of tens of thousands of projects that have benefited from this law. Studies laud the short- and long-term benefits of the law. But one building category has not benefited: local schools. Investors shun these project because they can’t earn credits.

Why? The main culprit is the “prior use” rule. Whereas the Trump project created a new building use, merely updating a school so it can continue to educate children is considered a “prior use” designation, and thus such projects are ineligible for the credits.

Former Virginia Sen. George Allen pointed out that this rule effectively raised local school modernization costs in Virginia by one-third or more. Roughly 75 percent of Philly schools might qualify as “historic.” Nationwide, two in five K-12 buildings are in the same category. Potential savings for Philadelphia and other localities will depend on the final legislation and its interconnection to applicable state law.

That’s why I introduced a bill this week, H.R. 922, to amend the tax-credit law to benefit Philadelphia and other school districts.

President Trump has touted an infrastructure plan based on leveraging roughly $140 billion in private capital to get an additional $860 billion in private borrowing. He said the private capital could be attracted by offering those investors tax credits equal to 80 percent of their investment, with the revenue produced by these projects paying off the lenders.

Critics say his proposal is pie in the sky for the transportation grid, but they have failed to consider public education infrastructure economics. A school modernization project can easily satisfy all the requirements in Trump’s 80 percent tax credit plan.

The president says his plan would pay for itself in the long run, and a properly crafted local school modernization project would do that too.

Any school modernization project could also be designed to accommodate adult learning and worker retraining for the community. Every local dollar saved on construction could be put into the classroom without raising local taxes or borrowing. It would be a double win.

Philadelphians aren’t looking for a handout. All my constituents want is a level playing field for school modernization projects. Philadelphians can take it from there.


— Dwight


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