Billions of Dollars Later – Are Our School (Buildings) Any Better?

The National Center for Education Statistics’ release last week of a survey of the condition of America’s school facilities in the 2012 Academic Year opens up a critical issue that too few understand-- how the condition, design and use of facilities affect student achievement, teacher quality, teacher retention, and community support. It has been 15 years since the last update, and those years haven’t been kind to the nation’s huge and expensive capital stock of school buildings. The NCES report highlights that:

  • America’s schools are old. On average, it has been more than 40 years since the main instructional building was constructed. Many upgrades and renovations notwithstanding, America’s school building stock is at best in late middle age and many are displaying their senescence.
  • Nearly a third of all of our public schools have temporary buildings and these are in even worse shape than our permanent buildings.
  • Our stock of public school facilities needs $197 billion in improvements to bring them into “good overall condition.

But there is more to the story and several questions need answers:

1. U.S. school districts reported to the U.S. Census of Government that between 1995 and 2010 they had spent around $564 billion (in current dollars) for “capital outlay” on school construction, land and existing structures.  Another $50 billion or so annually for school districts’ operating budget expenditures -- quaintly called Operations and Maintenance of Plant—was used for cleaning, utilities, security staff, repairs and maintenance of school buildings and grounds.  Was this money well spent?

2. The GAO estimated unmet facilities improvement to total $113 billion in 1995, and NCES estimated the unmet need in 1999 to be $127 billion. And now $197 billion. If even half of the hundreds of billions noted above was spent for new construction, are our schools falling apart as fast as we spend money on them? Do we have the data to really estimate how much is needed to keep facilities in good repair?

3. In the NCES study, the patterns of need varied little by region, the ethnic makeup of schools, and the wealth of the student population, a finding based on the flawed Free and Reduced Lunch indicator. But an in-depth study of school construction spending by project from 1995 to 2004 shows significant disparities based on the wealth of zip codes where schools were located (see BEST study). Are unmet needs really so similar everywhere?

4. A less obvious question raised by these data (and clearly beyond the purview of NCES’ charge in-writing this report) is whether decision-making about the operations and maintenance of our school facilities is structurally flawed.  On the one hand, school district and local school leadership nearly always emerges from the education side of the house. We train our principals as specialists in education pedagogy, curriculum, and the like, but we also charge them with decision-making on multimillion dollar school building and grounds. And they have little or no training in how to manage these problems, which are compounded because school district facilities managers seldom work on local school executive teams and get decision-making authority only when a facilities crisis strikes. Doubtless, superintendents and principals would rather deal with education issues than aging boilers and leaking roofs, but few have any choice given the way we organize our schools now. Does this lack of training in physical plant management affect the condition of America’s schools? Can graduate schools of education provide it? Or should we give principals the requisite skills through continuing vocational training? How can facilities managers be better used to support the educational mission of schools?

The importance of school facilities to the nation’s education mission is easy to ignore—but there is too much as stake to leave the monitoring of their condition and costs to a study that may take another 15 years to repeat.