America’s school buildings are barely passing muster and have an arduous climb to get their grades up to average.
That’s the dismal report from the American Society of Civil Engineers, which issued a “D+” grade to school facilities as part of the society’s 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.
The bottom line: Too many school facilities are inadequate, too many school systems don’t even have an accurate reading on the condition of their facilities, and too many of those who control the purse strings for schools fail to provide the funding needed to keep up, let alone address the backlog of deficient infrastructure.
School facilities are one of many infrastructure categories included in the civil engineers’ 2021 report card; overall, the nation’s infrastructure was graded at a C-minus.
The report card defines a D grade as infrastructure “in fair to poor condition and mostly below standard…a large portion of the system exhibits significant deterioration.”
The D+grade is the same mark the civil engineers gave schools when it issued its last report card in 2017. Much of the evidence cited in the latest report is a repeat of the deficiencies identified four years earlier.
The grade is disappointing, but the facts as compiled by the society speak for themselves.
•A majority of school districts need to update or replace at least some of their buildings.
•Inadequate building capacity at more than a third of public schools forces them to rely on portable buildings, many of them in less than good condition.
•As a share of the economy, capital funding to build or renovate school facilities was down 31% in fiscal 2017 compared with 2008.
“That’s the equivalent of a $20 billion cut,” the report card says.
•Public school facilities have to cope with an annual funding gap of at least $38 billion.
Between 1994 and 2013, school systems spent about $49 billion a year on new construction and the capital improvements. But an assessment of overall needs concludes that $87 billion a year should be spent on schools’ capital needs. That leaves an additional $38 billion per year that is needed to regularly upgrade systems, components, fixtures, equipment and finishes as they reach the end of their anticipated life in existing facilities; reduce the backlog of deferred maintenance; and alter existing facilities to respond to changing educational requirements.
•Even though school facilities represent the second-largest sector of public infrastructure (after highways), no comprehensive national data sources exist on K-12 public school infrastructure.
“A 2015 Congressional Research Service report concluded that national data on the condition of school infrastructure and the investment needs are extremely limited and outdated, and comprehensive findings remain elusive,” the report card stated.
•Planning is often lacking, as four in 10 public schools do not have a long-term plan in place to address operations and maintenance, the report card says.
Keeping school facilities in good condition is critical not only because of how that affects educational quality. Because public schools often serve a secondary function as emergency shelters or community spaces, school facilities need to be well-maintained to help communities survive crises and recover from them.
“Schools require upgrades to effectively fulfill this important community purpose, including windows that can withstand high winds, structures designed to survive earthquakes, and rooms specifically designed as shelters from tornados,” the report card says.
The report card acknowledges that many schools have made great strides in incorporating technology into their facilities, upgrades that have enabled them to switch abruptly to online instruction when Covid-19 forced facilities to shutter.
But some schools haven’t kept up, and the gap became more apparent as the pandemic continued.
“Despite progress, many school districts have not been able to keep pace,” the report card says. “Meanwhile, schools districts need to upgrade HVAC systems and add capacity to classrooms with outdoor classrooms, temporary buildings or leasing new space, all with limited budgets,” the report card says.
The civil engineers offer several recommendations that would help the schools sector boost its infrastructure grade.
•All schools (new and existing) should be designed to withstand seismic, wind, and flood events; state and local governments must support the widespread adoption and enforcement of modern building and infrastructure codes.
•The U.S. Department of Education should coordinate with state agencies and local districts to gather and publish at regular intervals nationwide statistics on school infrastructure.
•Districts should focus on life-cycle cost analysis principles in their planning and design processes to evaluate the total cost of projects; they should design new facilities for the lowest net present value cost and include life-cycle operations and maintenance in addition to capital construction; they should conduct building condition assessment of their existing infrastructure.
•Continue to encourage districts to adopt regular, comprehensive major maintenance, renewal and construction programs, and put into place preventive maintenance programs to extend the life of school facilities.
•Explore alternative financing for public school facilities, such as lease financing, and ownership and use arrangements to facilitate school construction.