Giving Compass' Take:

• Debby Warren explains how various parties pass the buck and refuse to allocate budget to address the lead in the drinking water in U.S. public schools. 

• How can funders work to stop these ineffective cycles of responsibility transfer? 

• Learn more about unsafe drinking water in schools

This year, a report from the nonprofit Environment America reviewed 32 states’ laws and regulations for protecting children from lead in water at school. 22 states got an F grade, ranging from Alabama and Louisiana to Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Vermont. Higher grades of C+ were given to California and New York because they require schools to test for lead, include enforcement measures, provide clear guidance for how the testing should be conducted, and specify what agencies are responsible for which tasks.

The District of Columbia, with a B+, got the highest ranking. This jurisdiction requires filters at every school tap, establishes a standard stricter than the federal “action level,” mandates annual testing, publishes all testing and remediation data online and places bar codes with access to filter maintenance data on all school foundations so that parents, kids and staff can check. But this was the only B+ given.

The barriers to sound public policy at the state level can be captured via two themes: the failure of public officials to act, and the financial pressures facing local school systems.

We know what happened in Flint where both local and state officials denied, obstructed, and diverted the issue. A similar pattern emerged in Newark, with the school district knowing about a lead problem for six years before they turned off the water fountains and supplied bottled water to staff and students. Then it took until 2018 for public officials to admit that there was a problem—that school water was unsafe to drink without filters, that the problem was more widespread than previously shared, and that it could easily take eight years to replace the poisonous pipes.

It’s a game of passing the buck. Schools want districts to pay; districts want the state to pay; the states, in turn, want someone else to pay. The responsibility to pay for testing now overwhelmingly falls on cash-strapped school districts. Lawmakers in California, trying to get statewide mandatory school lead testing, were strongly opposed by some school districts. And in that state, only 11 percent of the 13,000 K–12 schools signed up for free testing after it became available in early 2019. The Maryland Association of Board of Education opposed that state’s lead testing bill since the costs would be too burdensome on the districts. Testing costs are significant; the Texas Education Agencyestimates that annual water testing would cost $22 million annually—$2,500 per school—and remediation costs could be far more substantial and time-consuming. Particularly hard hit would be smaller school districts with tight budgets.

Read the full article about lead in the drinking water in public schools by Debby Warren at Nonprofit Quarterly.