With apologies to Charles Dickens, it is the best of times, it is the worst of times.
It is an age of unprecedented spending for school construction; it is an age of record budget deficits and cutbacks.
In countless communities across America, new school buildings have risen to replace outmoded facilities and accommodate a growing number of students. Yet, a faltering economy has put the squeeze on school operating budgets and has made voters less likely to support ambitious construction proposals. So, as their brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers did before them, children are falling behind because they come to learn each day in facilities that are cramped, outdated, inadequate and deteriorating.
The push for improving America's school facilities is more than just a question of aesthetics. Facilities that are inadequate, badly maintained or poorly designed can prevent students and teachers from performing to their capabilities, and in some cases can endanger their health and safety.
Studies have made the case that class size, school size, natural light, proper acoustics and good indoor air quality can affect students' ability to learn. So, to give students their best chance to succeed and to create the educated workforce that businesses will need to survive and prosper, it is imperative for the United States to have educational facilities that are healthy, safe and designed to create an environment most conducive to learning.
The burden of paying for school construction and renovation historically has fallen on local districts and their constituents. But with the needs so large and widespread, it is evident that local communities cannot carry the weight by themselves. Many states have stepped forward with additional aid for school facilities, and for a brief time, the federal government offered a funding program.
Many believe that it's time for the federal government to become involved again. A national survey of 1,005 registered voters conducted in January for the National Education Association by two pollsters — one Democratic and one Republican — found that by a ratio of 60 percent to 16 percent, voters would like to see the federal government take a greater role in providing money for school renovations.
Under President George W. Bush, the administration's “No Child Left Behind” education reform has involved the federal government in elementary and secondary education to an unprecedented degree. But “No Child Left Behind” does not include funding to help local school districts build or renovate facilities.
“The federal government should do more to assist local school districts in maintaining their facilities,” says the American Society of Civil Engineers' 2003 Progress Report on America's Infrastructure.
We have a problem
The late 1980s and early 1990s saw a flurry of research and publications focused on the condition of school facilities and how the physical environment affects learning.
One of the first to gain nationwide attention was a 1989 publication by the Education Writers Association. Wolves at the Schoolhouse Door chronicled a national crisis of inadequate and deficient school facilities, and served as a wake-up call that America was educating its children in buildings that were not conducive to learning and potentially dangerous.
In 1991, a number of research studies on school facilities were published. The American Association of School Administrators (AASA) released “Schoolhouse in the Red” which, among other things, found that 1 in 8 public school buildings provides a poor physical environment for learning.
Perhaps one of the most referenced research projects illustrating the impact of facilities on learning was also released this year. An independent study of the Washington, D.C., schools concluded that student achievement, as measured by standardized tests, would be 5 to 11 percent higher if the physical conditions of schools were improved. In addition, later that year USA Today published results of a poll of 72,000 teenagers. It stated that if given more education dollars, the first place America's high-school students would invest the money is in improved maintenance and construction.
The most stirring account of the deplorable state of the nation's school facilities, especially those in inner-city neighborhoods, was Jonathan Kozol's book Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools. In it, the author vividly describes the horrid conditions and blatant funding inequities present in many of the nation's urban schools. To many, Kozol's work was the first introduction to just how badly the condition of many schools in this country had deteriorated and provided a “face” to those victimized by the conditions.
Even with the plethora of information strongly connecting the condition of school facilities with student health and achievement, a disconnect existed among federal and state lawmakers, who had the power to address the issue, and the students, teachers and administrators trapped in those dilapidated environments. American School & University hoped to change that with the release of a special series of reports.
“Facilities Impact on Learning” was introduced in February 1992. The intent of the series was to spark debate and encourage action on the part of local school districts to take the major problems facing education facilities to the national level. The first installment featured an interview with Kozol. The author spoke candidly about the many social crimes inflicted on children in poorer neighborhoods, and the disparities in funding and facilities that children and teachers he met during his research deal with every day.
“It's become fashionable in recent years for school systems to hire a well-known black athlete or political leader to come into the school and give a motivational lecture to the kids,” Kozol said in 1992. “In a typical lecture, he tells the kids, ‘You are somebody,’ and the kids repeat it, ‘I am somebody.’ But when the roof is caving in, when the light fixtures are exposed, when the sewage leaks, when the rain comes through the roof; these situations convey a much deeper message. This tells the children in the eyes of this society, ‘You are nobody at all.’”
The magazine also asked the nation's school administrators to respond to a questionnaire and rate the condition of their buildings and what conditions affect the educational environment. In addition, a Call to Action was initiated and included columns on the subject by leaders of many of the nation's top education associations, including the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) and the Association of School Business Officials (ASBO).
Opening the nation's eyes
In June 1992, the second part of the “Facilities Impact on Learning” series was published and included results of the questionnaire on school conditions and the impact on learning. The title of the cover story, “Failing Grades,” gave a clear indication of the survey's results.
Administrators who responded viewed the majority of the nation's school facilities as barely adequate, a deterrent to learning, and in immediate and desperate need of repair. Among other findings:
When asked to what extent the physical environment affects the quality of learning, 85 percent of administrators responded “very significantly.”
Urban school facilities were viewed to be in much worse condition than facilities in rural areas, and almost four times as bad as suburban schools.
Rooms too hot or too cold; poor ventilation in rooms; aesthetically unattractive or unkempt buildings; and poor maintenance were the most cited factors having a detrimental effect on the quality of learning.
On average, urban and rural school buildings were much older (76 percent and 75 percent, respectively, were more than 21 years old) than their suburban counterparts (59 percent were more than 21 years old).
Three months after the release of the “Failing Grades” report, the third installment of the “Facilities Impact on Learning” series was published. It featured interviews with U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander and Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton on the facilities crisis facing the nation's schools, and how they planned to address the issue of education facilities and funding. In addition, with the presidential election a few months away, both were asked if a national education construction program would be considered to improve America's dilapidated and inefficient education infrastructure.
While no commitments were made, the “seeds of change” were planted. And over the next year, American School & University profiled a number of school districts and states that were taking bold initiatives to improve their learning environments.
In 1994, a bill was introduced in Congress that would allocate federal funding to help address the nation's school-construction needs and improve the dilapidated condition of K-12 facilities. It would be the first time the federal government has partnered with local and state education agencies to maintain, construct and invest in America's education infrastructure.
Sponsored by U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.), the Education Infrastructure Act of 1994 was enacted. However, in an example of political irony, the minimal amount of funding originally appropriated in the budget was rescinded later that year — even though the Act still had authorization until 1999.
The crisis facing the nation's education infrastructure was further brought to light upon the release of the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) report “Condition of America's Schools” in 1995. The report estimated that $112 billion was urgently needed to repair or upgrade the nation's public school facilities to put them in good overall condition, and that some 14 million children were attending schools that needed extensive repairs or replacement. The report was the first of five from the GAO focusing on various aspects of education infrastructure and the impact on operations and finance.
A first step
On July 11, 1996, the crisis facing America's education facilities took center stage. On that day, President Clinton unveiled plans for a four-year, $5 billion school-construction initiative to help school districts construct new facilities and rebuild crumbling schools. U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley told AS&U, “The abysmal condition of many school facilities throughout the country calls out urgently for a national effort to correct the problem.”
Whether or not that $112 billion figure in the GAO report was accurate (many education advocates felt it was too low), the story begged the question, “Where is the money going to come from?” Clinton's construction initiative was a milestone, but represented a tiny fraction of what was needed to upgrade U.S. schoolhouses.
Proponents of greater state and federal involvement in school construction had to fight the longstanding assumption that local districts should bear the financial burden of constructing and renovating elementary and secondary school facilities. Individual states enacted funding formulas that tried to equitably distribute state aid for school operating budgets, but in many cases state funding for school construction was inadequate or nonexistent.
But, counteracting the historical reluctance to have state or federal funds help pay for school construction were several factors that converged in the 1990s to give greater impetus to the drive to improve the nation's schools:
The school buildings constructed beginning in the 1950s to cope with the population explosion of the baby-boom generation were beginning to reach a critical age. Many of those structures were built quickly and cheaply, and their flaws became more evident as they aged. Years of deferred maintenance exacerbated the substandard conditions of these structures.
As existing facilities became increasingly inadequate, schools across the nation had to find additional classroom space for a new population boomlet. Even if there were no problems with existing facilities, districts needed to come up with classrooms for an additional 8.4 million students that accounted for a 19 percent increase in public school enrollment from 1988 to 2001.
Court challenges to state education-funding formulas at first dealt only with operating funds, but in the 1990s, reformers began to pursue more equitable facilities funding in their lawsuits. Many states, either because of a judge's order or in an effort to pre-empt a judicial solution, came up with programs to help pay for school construction and renovation.
The advance of technology convinced many policymakers that schools needed to be equipped with ample numbers of computers and online capabilities. In many cases, the improvements needed to accommodate technology resulted in overall facility upgrades. In addition, the federal government's E-rate subsidy made it financially feasible for schools to modernize their buildings.
Studies released in the 1990s provided more evidence that improving the condition of a school facility could boost student performance. After studies found a correlation between the amount of daylight in a school building and improved test scores, many school districts sought to upgrade their facilities with windows and skylights.
Other studies made the case that smaller schools and smaller classrooms provided a better learning environment for students. Many districts sought to build smaller schools or construct facilities that could be divided into smaller units to establish a small-school environment. Having smaller class sizes meant districts had to find more classroom space even if their enrollment was static.
As educators developed greater understanding of environmental conditions that affect a school facility, building upgrades also took into account the need for proper acoustics and good indoor air quality into the discussion about building improvements.
As improvements in equipment and technology allowed schools to operate their facilities while reducing their energy use, districts often sought to upgrade or retrofit their building systems to take advantage of greater efficiencies. Many districts could not afford the upfront capital cost of new systems, so they used methods such as performance contracting, in which an energy service company paid the initial cost of a new system and received reimbursement as the new system generated cost savings.
Money to spend
Interwoven through all those factors influencing facility decisions was the robust health of the U.S. economy in the 1990s. It persuaded voters in local districts to be more receptive to spending the dollars needed to upgrade facilities. In addition, states such as California made it easier for districts to approve capital-improvement projects by lowering the threshold at which bond proposals were approved.
The resulting flow of construction funds to U.S. schools could be seen in the numbers. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, capital outlay accounted for 6.8 percent of education spending in 1979-80, 8.4 percent in 1989-90, and 11.4 percent in 1999-2000.
Those increases were the result of numerous successful bond issues. Among the largest: $9.2 billion and $13 billion statewide packages in California; $3.5 billion in Clark County, Nev.; $2.4 billion in Los Angeles (followed a few years later with a $3.35 billion issue); $1.5 billion in San Diego; $1.5 billion in Detroit; $1.4 billion in Dallas.
In Ohio, the state created a School Facilities Commission to subsidize school construction. Since 1998, it has received more than $3.6 billion to distribute to local districts.
In its annual report on school construction, American School & University found that $26.8 billion was spent on K-12 school construction in 2001; in 2002, it declined to a still-impressive $24.3 billion.
But those billions of dollars can only plug so many holes in the dike. Even with some federal assistance and with states boosting how much they have contributed to local school construction and renovation, the gap between funding and actual needs is widening.
The critical facility needs identified by the GAO in 1995 have not been eliminated everywhere; in many buildings, those conditions grow worse and the cost of correcting them climbs. In the intervening years, buildings considered to be in adequate condition in the initial study have aged and deteriorated.
The American Society of Civil Engineers characterized the condition of school facilities in language familiar to educators. The group's Report Card for America's Infrastructure in 2001 showed that the nation's school infrastructure had improved since 1998. But it was not a report card that a child would want to bring home to mom and dad — the grade improved from an F to a D-minus. In its 2003 progress report, the society left the D-minus unchanged.
“Due to either aging, outdated facilities, severe overcrowding, or new mandated class sizes, 75 percent of our nation's school buildings remain inadequate to meet the needs of school children,” the report asserts.
In 2000, the National Education Association prepared its own study of the nation's school facility needs. By the NEA's reckoning, the needs were more than double what the GAO estimated in 1995. The teachers association found that modernization needs for the public school infrastructure in the United States totaled more than $268 billion. Add in nearly $54 billion in technology needs, and U.S. schools were looking at a staggering bill of about $322 billion to bring the nation's school facilities up to modern standards.
Since then, the national economy has tanked, budget surpluses have evaporated, and adequate education funding — never an easy proposition even in prosperous times — has become even more difficult to wring out of legislatures.
In this economic climate, the $322 billion in needs looks less like a goal to achieve and more like an obstacle too great to overcome.
As congressional leaders negotiated the details of President Bush's education reforms in 2001, Democrats were advocating a continuation of the program that offered federal help for school construction. However, those provisions did not survive in the bill that became the “No Child Left Behind” Act.
Since then, U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) has again introduced legislation known as “America's Better Classrooms” Act, which would enable schools to borrow more than $25 billion interest-free for school construction and renovation. U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-N.Y.) has introduced a similar bill, but neither has been enacted.
“Given the urgent need, we must make this down payment on rebuilding our nation's crumbling schools now,” says Rangel.
On the agenda
As the 2004 presidential campaign takes shape, President Bush's education platform emphasizes the education reforms he advocated in the “No Child Left Behind” legislation enacted in 2002.
Many of the Democratic candidates, including the frontrunner, U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), questioned the wisdom and effectiveness of many of those reforms, but they also have said improving America's education facilities would be a priority.
Kerry, in 1997, was a co-sponsor of a bill introduced by U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun to create a federal school-construction assistance program. He describes himself as being “at the forefront of the fight to obtain federal funding for school construction.”
As part of his campaign's education platform, Kerry proposes creation of an education trust fund, similar to what former Vice President Al Gore supported in his 2000 presidential campaign. Kerry also expresses support for federal funding for school construction, citing his co-sponsorship in 2001 of a Senate bill similar to Rangel's proposal.
Events that have influenced the movement to improve the nation's school facilities:
The Carnegie Foundation reports that student attitudes about education are a direct reflection of their learning environment.
Wolves at the Schoolhouse Door, by the Education Writers Association, chronicles a national crisis of inadequate and deficient facilities.
The Americans with Disabilities Act becomes law. It mandates that public accommodations, such as school facilities, must be accessible to people with disabilities.
AASA's “Schoolhouse in the Red” found 1 in 8 public school buildings provides a poor physical environment for learning.
Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools, by Jonathan Kozol, exposes some of the horrid conditions present in many of the nation's inner-city schools.
An independent study of the Washington, D.C. schools concluded that student achievement, as measured by standardized tests, would be 5 percent to 11 percent higher if the physical conditions of their schools improved.
A USA Today poll of 72,000 teenagers reports that if given more education dollars, the first place America's high-school students would invest the money is in improved maintenance and construction.
AS&U's “Facilities Impact on Learning” series reports that 85% of school administrators feel that the quality of learning is very significantly affected by the physical environment.
Goals 2000: Educate America Act becomes law. The legislation includes the first federal proposal to address school facilities when developing voluntary national opportunity-to-learn standards.
The “Education Infrastructure Act,” sponsored by Senator Carol Moseley-Braun, becomes law. However, no funding is allocated to meet its goals.
The U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) report “Condition of America's Schools” is released, estimating $112 billion was urgently needed to repair or upgrade the nation's public school facilities to put them in good overall condition.
The GAO releases “School Facilities: Profiles of School Condition By State” and “School Facilities: America's Schools Report Differing Conditions,” which provides more detail about the facilities needs identified in the previous GAO report.
President Clinton introduces a four-year, $5 billion school-construction initiative to help school districts construct new facilities and rebuild crumbling schools.
A study by the Heschong Mahone Group in California showed that students in classrooms illuminated by daylight tended to score better in math and reading tests.
The National Education Association report “Modernizing Our Schools: What Will It Cost?” estimates the unmet need for school facilities nationwide at $322 billion — $268 billion for school infrastructure and $54 billion for education technology.
The American Society of Civil Engineers issues its Report Card for America's Infrastructure and gives schools a D-minus.
President Bush's education reform initiative, the “No Child Left Behind” Act, becomes law. It provides more funding for education and requires states to set standards and hold districts accountable for the performance of their students.
Florida voters approve a constitutional amendment capping class sizes from kindergarten to 12th grade.
U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) again introduces the “America's Better Classrooms” Act, which would enable schools to borrow more than $25 billion interest-free for school construction and renovation.
Sidebar: Where They Stand
Although education issues are not at the forefront of the 2004 presidential race, the candidates' positions show clear differences between the incumbent and his Democratic challengers.
By Mike Kennedy
School administrators trying to provide better facilities for their students and staff may hope that the issue gains traction in the 2004 Presidential election, but in the early stages of the campaign, concerns such as terrorism, the war in Iraq and the economy have garnered more attention than education.
When the candidates discuss education, most often it involves the “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) Act. President George W. Bush holds up the law as the centerpiece of his education platform and a critical step in making schools more accountable and students more successful.
Most of the Democratic candidates have criticized NCLB. What the Bush administration sees as a push for greater accountability, the Democratic challengers see as rigid and unrealistic standards. The Democrats also contend that the White House has cut funding for NCLB, and left states and local districts without the resources to achieve the desired reforms.
The debate over NCLB could become a more prominent issue in the campaign, especially as state and local officials — including Republicans — express dissatisfaction with the law. Legislators in Utah are trying to opt out of the law's provision and forgo the federal funding that comes with it. Some local districts across the country also have repudiated federal funding and have chosen not to follow the requirements of the law.
A study by the Center on Education Policy, a public education advocacy group in Washington, D.C., found that states and school districts are having problems meeting the law's stringent requirements with limited funding and staffing.
Some of the Democratic candidates address school facility needs in their policy statements, but the majority of education debate has focused on the merits of NCLB.
Here are summaries of the candidates' education positions, as spelled out in their campaign literature:
President George W. Bush
The president's education platform shines a focus on the “No Child Left Behind” Act and its goals of improving student performance and closing the achievement gap between rich and poor students.
The law, enacted in 2002, is beginning to show results, his campaign contends. The Reading First program has distributed $412 million to 20 states to help schools improve children's reading achievement. Every state has developed an accountability plan to make sure that every school is scoring at grade level in reading and math tests.
“The national objective is to challenge the soft bigotry of low expectations and to raise the standards for every single child,” says Bush.
The Bush campaign says federal education funding has climbed 59.8 percent from 2000 to 2003. That includes an additional $10.4 billion in Title I funding for disadvantaged students, $3 billion to recruit and train principals and teachers, and $200 million for charter schools to give parents more options and provide children alternatives to failing schools.
The president also says his reforms have reduced federal red tape and created more flexible programs that allow local officials to make decisions.
A key element of NCLB is a school-choice provision that allows parents of students in low-performing schools to transfer to a better public school.
“This is an historic moment for education,” says Bush. “It's the first time ever where the federal government has recognized that school choice is a viable alternative for parents. It's an opportunity for us to say to a mother or a dad, here's your chance to achieve your expectation for your child.”
Sen. John Kerry
Kerry is proposing an Education Trust Fund “that makes sure — with mandatory funding — that we meet the promises in the “No Child Left Behind” Act and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. … This will enable schools to fund more after-school programs, hire more teachers and improve quality.”
The Massachusetts Democrat says he will lessen the NCLB Act's reliance on “one-size-fits-all” testing. “No single prescription or solution will ensure success in every school and classroom,” says Kerry. “Tests should be used to diagnose problems so we can fix them. They should not be used to punish our schools, our teachers or our students. … We need high-quality assessments that reflect actual learning, and we need to consider indicators of school performance other than simply test scores.” The candidate, who voted for NCLB in the Senate, also contends that President Bush has undermined the Act by cutting funds for it after it had been enacted.
Kerry asserts that he “has been at the forefront of the fight to obtain federal funding for school construction.” He pledges to continue his efforts to modernize and rebuild the nation's school facilities. “We can't ask America's kids to meet high standards in schools that are falling down,” says Kerry.
Smaller class sizes
As president, Kerry “will champion initiatives that ensure children are not forced to learn in overcrowded classrooms, particularly in the early grades.”
Kerry wants to make early education available and affordable for everyone.
The senator opposes private school vouchers “that will drain resources from public schools.” Instead, Kerry supports “efforts to increase resources to public schools to ensure that all students have quality teachers, high standards, smaller classes and safe, modern schools.”
Kerry would provide $120 million a year “to recruit and train principals in every low-performing or high-needs school across the country.”
Although the following candidates are unlikely to win the nomination, their campaigns also raised these education issues:
Former Gov. Howard Dean
Dean has been a vocal critic of President Bush's education reform efforts. He argues that school boards, parents and teachers, not the federal government, know best how to educate children.
“The Bush administration's ‘No Child Left Behind’ legislation is a draconian takeover of local and state control,” says Dean. “While we all applaud the notion of accountability, the methods in NCLB to measure accountability and promote reform are dangerously flawed.”
Dean pledges to change the accountability provisions in NCLB. “We must set reasonable goals for adequate yearly progress that are fair to students, teachers, schools and states and do not rely solely on standardized tests,” says Dean.
He also vows to boost funding for the reform law so that its provisions have a greater chance to produce the desired results.
Other planks in Dean's education platform:
Dean would establish a program that would use federal funding to match state and local investments over three years to build new schools and renovate existing schools. “Children need classrooms that are not overcrowded,” he says. “They need schools that are not crumbling around them.”
Equitable state funding
The candidate would use NCLB to hold states accountable for providing schools with the resources they need to succeed.
Dean proposes that every eighth-grade student who commits to working hard in high school and pursuing a higher education will be provided resources to earn a degree. Those students would receive access to $10,000 a year in loans to pursue post-secondary education. Repayment of the loan would never exceed more than 10 percent of a student's income, or more than 7 percent of their income if they have a public-service job.
Dean promises to boost funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Act.
The former Vermont governor also would provide programs to enhance the training of teachers and principals, expand early-childhood programs, and continue after-school programs such as the 21st Century Community Learning Centers.
Sen. John Edwards
The North Carolina senator wants to make NCLB more flexible so that officials “can focus on the schools that are truly failing and keep quality teachers in specialized fields.”
Edwards, who voted for NCLB legislation, contends that the funds needed for schools to “leave no child behind” instead went to provide tax cuts. He vowed to fully fund the reform legislation.
“We should hold schools accountable, but we should also hold George Bush accountable for his terrible broken promises to our schools,” says Edwards. “George Bush said he would leave no child behind, but instead he pushed tax cuts that left no millionaire behind, then turned around and cut funding for his own education bill by $1 billion.”
Other education proposals put forth by Edwards:
Edwards vows to “shrink high schools, build new ones and break up bigger ones so that adults know their students.” He wants to expand programs that help low-income students prepare for college and plans to ask every college to adopt at least one high-poverty school.
The candidate pledges to create voluntary, high-quality after-school centers at or near every school.
Edwards says he will work to increase teacher pay, create scholarships for prospective teachers who commit to working in underserved areas, and increase funding for programs that provide training for teachers.
The senator's “College for Everyone” proposal would make college tuition-free for the first year for every person who is qualified to attend a public college and is willing to work part-time.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich
Kucinich supports having the federal government involved in school construction and renovation. He has co-sponsored bills in Congress to help local districts pay for needed repairs and expansions. Kucinich opposes voucher programs, which he believes undermine the nation's commitment to public schools. He has proposed offering free tuition to the millions of students who attend state universities.
The Ohio Democrat also has a $60 billion proposal to create a free, universal and voluntary pre-kindergarten program for children ages 3 to 5. “Universal pre-kindergarten would revolutionize America's commitment to early childhood education,” says Kucinich.
Rev. Al Sharpton
Sharpton believes that the nation's education system would fare better and be more equitable if education were a right guaranteed by the U.S. constitution.
“A ‘state's rights’ educational system is structured to be ‘separate and unequal — 50 states, 3,067 counties, tens of thousands of cities, 15,000 school districts and 85,000 schools — all ‘separate and unequal,’ each with varying degrees of opportunity, funding and quality,” says Sharpton. “There's only one way to legally guarantee ‘a public education of equal high quality’ to every American — add an education amendment to the Constitution…. If we pass a new education amendment, the next civil rights movement will (be) fighting for congressional legislation — while also using federal courts — to implement the Education Rights Amendment.”