5481051885_877b676b7a_bWhen thinking about what makes a quality school, most people cite quality teachers, good curriculum, and perhaps modern technology. Very few think about the school building itself; after all, in many cases the building has been there largely unchanged for decades.

In 1995, a U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) report, School Facilities: Condition of America’s Schools, found that half of all schools had problems with indoor air quality and 15,000 schools had air considered unfit to breathe. In the 20 years since that report, the United States has invested $2 trillion in improving school infrastructure, including removing asbestos, lead pipes, and lead paint; however, there has not been a comprehensive look at where our school facilities are today since then.

A new report by the 21st Century School Fund, the National Council on School Facilities, and the Center for Green Schools highlights the current state of our school buildings and provides recommendations for improving them. The report set out to understand three critical points:

  1. The scale of elementary and secondary public school infrastructure
  2. The significant effort that communities are making to provide safe, healthy, and adequate public school facilities
  3. The future investment needed to ensure adequate public school facilities for all students, including those in low-wealth communities

School buildings represent the second largest public infrastructure investment in the United States, behind only transportation, but as the report notes, the federal government provides almost no capital construction funds for schools and state support varies widely. Local school districts bear the greatest burden for investing in school infrastructure, but for low-wealth districts that cannot afford to make significant capital investments, more frequent maintenance is often required using money from their operating funds—the same budget that pays for teacher salaries, instructional materials, and general programming.

School infrastructure is significant because one in six Americans—nearly 50 million students and 6 million adults—are in nearly 100,000 school buildings every school day. Research shows that high-quality school facilities help to improve student achievement, reduce truancy and suspensions, improve staff satisfaction and retention, and raise property values. High-quality schools are also critical to providing equitable education opportunities for all students.

As part of the report, the Center for Green Schools has created an interactive website that lets you view a state profile of school infrastructure and the ability to drill down through an interactive map to view a specific school district’s data. An infographic summarizing the report’s findings is also available for sharing on social media.

The report concludes with four ideas to prompt constructive discussions in communities about school facilities, since it is at the community level that these changes must occur. Those four ideas are:

  1. Understand your community’s public school facilities
  2. Engage in education facilities planning
  3. Support new public funding
  4. Leverage public and private resources

Photo © 2011 by David Woo under Creative Commons license.