Schooling’s Crumbling Infrastructure
Addressing a Serious and Underappreciated Problem
In the last few years, national debates on education policy have had little to say about the seemingly mundane yet vitally important issue of school construction. School construction is a significant policy issue because without major renovations, upgrades, and new facilities, many schools are in such bad physical shape that they cannot even begin to offer students a high-quality education. Just as policymakers have worked to modernize and reform curriculum, assessment, and instruction, they also need to modernize the way we finance school buildings.
The last time that concerns about school facilities were seriously addressed on the national stage was during the 2000 election. Since then, the issue has fallen off the agenda in Washington. Instead, policymakers are focusing on student achievement.
Unfortunately, the same school facilities problems that drew attention in the late 1990s—overcrowded buildings, leaky roofs, and the like—remain unresolved today. We entered the 21st century with one in four schools making do with buildings in poor condition, and one in four schools overcrowded, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Fully 3.5 million students attend schools that are in very poor or nonoperational condition. In a 2004 study, the American Society of Civil Engineers found no evidence of improvement in the overall quality of school facilities since 2000.
Public schools nationally aren’t experiencing the dramatic enrollment growth of the 1990s, but 10 states will see their student populations grow by between 5 percent and 15 percent in the coming decade, and four will see growth of more than 15 percent. High-growth communities such as Clark County, Nev., and Miami-Dade County, Fla., can’t build schools fast enough to keep up.
There are consequences for ignoring these problems. Lack of adequate school buildings hampers some of today’s most promising and innovative reform efforts.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act promised that children would not be trapped in underperforming schools. Instead, children in poorly performing schools were supposed to have the opportunity to transfer to better public schools. But in many communities, there are far fewer available spaces than students seeking transfers. In New York City last year, 33,000 students applied to transfer out of underperforming schools, but only 7,000 could be accommodated. This is an extreme example, but boosting federal construction aid to help successful schools renovate or expand would clearly allow more students to transfer and make the prospect of accommodating them more appealing to successful schools.
Charter schools promise to expand the supply of high-quality public schools in disadvantaged communities. Yet most charter schools have limited credit histories, and they often lack access to public school facilities or traditional funding streams such as bonds. Because of that, one-third of charter school operators say facilities are a major obstacle to their schools’ success.
In an information economy, students must become familiar with computers and the Internet. Likewise, teachers need computers to analyze student-achievement data generated in No Child Left Behind assessments. Yet the average school building today is 40 years old, and many do not have even the electrical wiring necessary for computer networks.
Worse still, dilapidated school facilities send our children the wrong message about the priority we place on their education. Even as policymakers seek to improve equity and close gaps in educational outcomes, disparities in facilities send disadvantaged students a visible and unmistakable message that we care less about their education than that of their more affluent peers.
To support reform, we must not only pay more attention to school facilities, but also apply to school construction the lessons and principles that have driven education reform in other areas. Because the cost of construction is so high, we can’t throw enough federal money at the problem to solve it. Instead, we need to modernize school facilities finance and give schools new tools that fit their needs.
Fortunately, there’s already a great model for federal investment to help local communities meet critical needs. State infrastructure banks, or SIBs, are special banks operated at the state or local level by public or nonprofit groups. They offer communities low-cost loans to meet local needs for transportation and safe drinking water. These banks are created with federal start-up capital, but as loans are repaid the funds are recycled into other loans, allowing SIBs to become self-sustaining, and leveraging a big impact from modest federal investments.
The federal government could help modernize school construction finance by investing capital to create a whole new set of state infrastructure banks focused on school construction and renovation. SIBs for schools could offer districts and public charter schools a flexible array of loans, credit enhancements, and other innovative, low-cost financial mechanisms. State infrastructure banks reflect several key principles that should guide policymakers in addressing school construction:
Target resources where they’re most needed.
The No Child Left Behind law targets education resources toward closing achievement gaps and improving achievement for disadvantaged students. Similarly, construction aid must be targeted to improve schools in poor rural and urban communities and to expand public school choice and charter school opportunities for disadvantaged youngsters.
Provide access for nontraditional schools and innovators. Some of the most promising school improvement efforts come from charter school operators and other innovators working outside the traditional district system. Yet these groups often lack access to traditional school finance mechanisms and as a result face challenges in obtaining facilities. Policymakers need to recognize that new and innovative schools have different needs and work to create new financing models that meet them.
Be flexible. Reform is most effective when local leaders have the flexibility and resources to craft solutions that meet local needs. By the same token, effective facilities aid must be flexible enough to meet the different needs facing diverse schools: construction, repair, or acquisition.
Look beyond the existing structure. Successful reformers typically move beyond outdated, industrial-era approaches to public education and craft innovative, progressive solutions. Similarly, policymakers must look beyond the often-ineffectual reliance on tax-exempt bonds backed by local property taxes, and offer new alternatives for schools and districts where tax-exempt bonds aren’t working.
State infrastructure banks for schools are not a pie-in-the-sky idea. During the last two sessions of Congress, Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., and Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.; Tom Harkin, D-Iowa; and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., have proposed legislation that would create SIBs at a relatively modest cost to the federal government. A billion federal dollars over each of the next five years could lay the groundwork for a robust system of state infrastructure banks to provide immediate aid to the neediest schools and help fund affordable construction far into the future.
Ensuring that school facilities are safe and modernized is a necessary condition for student learning. By creating SIBs for schools, Washington could leverage state and local investments, allowing states and communities to modernize existing schools and build new ones. Once that problem is tackled, educators and policymakers can focus more effectively on the real work: improving the academic achievement of America’s children.
Vol. 40, Issue 24, Pages 30-31