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States Do Not Spend Enough to Fix, Build Schools, Report Says

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Washington

States are doing little to build schools and repair the nation's education infrastructure, a federal report says.

Only 13 states have comprehensive school-facilities programs, according to the report. State legislatures appropriated $3.5 billion for school construction in 1994, a fraction of the $112 billion that federal officials say is needed to build and fix schools nationwide.

Other than Alaska and Hawaii, no state spent more than $300 per pupil on facilities in 1994, and 17 states spent less than $100 per pupil.

These findings amount to a "report card that measures state support for education infrastructure," said Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill. "Very few states get a passing mark."

Sen. Moseley-Braun released the report at a news conference here last month as part of her bid to secure federal funding for school infrastructure. The $100 million that she secured in the fiscal 1995 budget was cut, and no new funds are being considered in the debate over the 1996 budget.

"We have to go back to the drawing board on this issue," she said.

Access for Disabled

The report on state programs is the third in a series on school facilities planned by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress. The first report, released last January, put the $112 billion price tag on the repair needs of schools. A second survey, released last March, said schools are not equipped for modern technology. (See Education Week, Feb. 8 and April 12, 1995.)

Late last month, the GAO also released a separate report on accessibility for the disabled that details findings included in its January 1995 report. In its fourth school-facilities report, the GAO estimates that schools nationwide need to spend $5.2 billion over the next three years to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Using results from a survey of 7,500 schools, the reportgao estimates that schools have spent $1.5 billion to improve accessibility for the handicapped in the past three years, or an average of about $40,000 per school.

About a quarter of the responding schools said they do not need to spend money to improve accessibility for the handicapped.

Many school officials have expressed uncertainty about the requirements of the 1990 law. (See Education Week, March 1, 1995.)

The federal reports follow recent court rulings in Texas, Ohio, and Arizona that have highlighted the poor condition of school facilities in declaring a state's school-finance system unconstitutional. While building schools traditionally has been the job of local districts--which pay roughly 80 percent of building costs--the court decisions have prompted some states to assume some responsibility.

Thirteen states have comprehensive facilities programs that provide funding and technical assistance to districts while also collecting data about the condition of buildings statewide, the GAO says. Among those are Alabama, North Carolina, and Ohio, which are facing school-finance lawsuits.

'Resentment' in Arizona

Legal pressure does not always translate to state action, however. For example, while the Arizona Supreme Court made facilities the pivotal issue in its July 1994 ruling on the school-finance system, the legislature has yet to agree on a plan to address the issue. (See Education Week, Aug. 3, 1994.)

"There's no consensus about the extent of the problem, there's not a reliable data set, and there's resentment about the court decision," said Timothy M. Hogan, the executive director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, whose suit led to the ruling.

In Vermont, lawmakers are backing off their state's commitment to help build schools, saying that it's too costly.

The legislature has voted to repeal a law that guarantees the state will pay between 30 percent and 50 percent of costs, and legislative leaders hope to craft a new law promising less to districts.

Efforts to shrink government in New York and Florida, meanwhile, led to cuts of 25 percent and more than 50 percent, respectively, of facilities staffs in those two states' education departments.

Florida's "concern for school facilities is going right out the window" with the push for local control, said David S. Honeyman, a co-director of the Center for Educational Finance at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Facilities, Mr. Honeyman said, "are one of the things that you can turn over to the districts and say, 'Let the locals do it."'

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