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School-Construction Issues Play Key Role in Equity Debate

By Lonnie Harp — March 20, 1991 6 min read

Poor school districts, which often count tired buildings and outdated equipment among their many troubles, are increasingly focusing on brick-and-mortar issues as they challenge state school-finance systems.

The issue of adequate facilities is finding a prominent niche in the equity debate, several school-finance experts said last week.

As states’ school-funding systems are overturned by the courts and revamped by the legislatures, observers added, poor districts may begin to cure years of neglect with a sudden burst of construction.

The construction-equity issue is particularly important these days in Texas, where lawmakers are working on a court-ordered overhaul of the state’s $14-billion school-finance system. Bills passed by the House and the Senate would grant the state new authority in distributing funds for school construction and equipment and, in turn, bestow new buying power on many districts.

“There is a lot of school construction right now because of [population] growth,” said Craig Foster, executive director of the Equity Center, a coalition of poor school districts in Texas. But if the current proposals become law, “it’s going to be big business,” he added.

“Most of the poor districts in Texas have not been able to respond to the need for renovation or new facilities,” Mr. Foster said, predicting a wave of “deferred construction” if the legislature’s plan is enacted and upheld by the state courts.

The Texas Supreme Court last year ruled the state’s school-finance system unconstitutional, arguing that because school revenues are8based largely on local property values, students in affluent areas have an unfair advantage. Similar rulings have been issued in recent years in Kentucky, Montana, and New Jersey, and finance lawsuits are pending in several other states.

Although school-finance debates have often centered around per-pupil spending levels and instructional issues, the cases are beginning to focus more on building needs, said Marilyn J. Morheuser, executive director of the Education Law Center of New Jersey and lead counsel for the poor school districts there that successfully sued the state.

“In Newark alone we have 15 school buildings that are over 100 years old,” she said. “There is a lot of talk today about having an educationally positive environment, and that’s hard when children are entering a school where the building is literally crumbling, or [school officials] have made the auditorium into 11 classrooms and are turning closets into classrooms.”

Although the New Jersey Supreme Court did not order the state to take action on the facilities question in its 1990 opinion in Abbott v. Burke, it calculated the need for new capital spending at $3 billion.

The New Jersey legislature currently is debating a three-year, $600-million bond issue. Ms. Morheuser said, however, that “it is too early to tell” whether state officials will concentrate on the needs of low-wealth systems in deciding how to spend the money.

Equity concerns have led to a thriving school-construction business in4West Virginia, where the state supreme court tied the facilities issue to a 1983 school-finance lawsuit.

The legislature initially proposed bond referendums as the solution to questions raised by the court. After three defeats at the hands of state voters, however, lawmakers created the independent School Building Authority, which since 1989 has initiated nearly $300 million in construction and foresees another $500 million over the next 10 years.

The state money mostly has gone for buildings and renovations in poor districts, where many school facilities were in disrepair, said Clacy Williams, the authority’s executive director.

“We had kids housed in one building that was so structurally unsafe that there was a seismograph on one of the walls,” Mr. Williams said.

Each day, he added, officials would consult the device to see if the building was about to fall down.

Some of the poor districts’ building woes came as a result of taxpayers’ unwillingness to approve bond issues, Mr. Williams noted. But several districts were so poor, he said, they would not have been able to raise enough money for a new school building even if voters had agreed.

The West Virginia case, with its emphasis on physical improvements, was long seen as an extreme school-finance remedy, according to David C. Thompson, co-director of the University Council for Education Administration’s Center for Education Finance at Kansas State University. But since the West Virginia decision, he observed, the facilities issue has quietly bubbled to the surface of most finance-equity debates.

The ruling “has been called an anomaly by some people because of the depth it went to, but I would call it a predictive anomaly,” he said.

Beyond school-finance cases, Mr. Thompson suggested, other equity concerns such as desegregation also focus heavily on school facilities.

In many urban school districts, desegregation remedies have included construction and renovation to produce magnet schools. In other areas, civil-rights concerns have pointed toward a more general upgrading of schools that serve largely disadvantaged or minority populations.

Some analysts said the facilities question remains a secondary aspect of state finance-equity debates.

“One of the reasons we have not heard a lot of talk about this yet is that we are just beginning to see the magnitude of the problem in some areas,” said Mary F. Fulton, a research analyst for the Education Commission of the States.

Many of the nearly 30 states with capital-improvement programs already are using them to help poor districts, said John Myers, education-8program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But Mr. Thompson, who is working with officials in Indiana on a school-finance challenge, said the facilities issue has been cast in a central role in that state.

“We are even out photographing buildings” to make the case, he said.

Mr. Foster said the facilities question was “one of our main pleadings.”

“What we know is that districts with property wealth in the mid to high range have anywhere from new and functional facilities to a Taj Mahal kind of thing,” he said.

Mr. Foster recalled sending an investigator to photograph an elementary-school planetarium in an affluent Dallas district. The investigator called back to ask which of the three planetariums he should take a picture of.

While such celestial models may not be on the drawing board in other areas, Texas officials anticipate that a swarm of poor school districtsel10lwould take advantage of the legislature’s new building-finance system.

Mr. Foster estimated that of the 670 districts in the state with below-average wealth, one-third would want to undertake “significant” building and renovation projects. “And most of the rest would have some sort of upgrading,” he said.

Ms. Morheuser of New Jersey said that poor school districts in that state began their efforts to press the facilities issue after the state supreme court in 1973 noted that infrastructure needs should be included in the school-finance debate.

That push, she said, has been reinforced by “effective schools” research.

“Environment has been identified as an important issue, so it has gained a larger role,” she said.

Mr. Thompson said that a glance at school-finance case law over the past 15 years shows how the facilities issue has gained momentum.

“What I find in a series of those cases ... is the beginning of a notion that has a way of incubating and growing over a period of time and comes back to bite you,” he said.

“Legislatures are becoming more sensitive to this whole issue,” he added. “Where previously they used to laugh, now they have no choice.”

In Kentucky, where a successful finance-equity suit forced lawmakers to revamp the state’s entire school system last year, the legislature’s action in 1985 creating the School Construction Facilities Commission gave school-building concerns a head start on the other reforms.

“We have tied up most of the architectural-firm and school-construction-firm capacity in the state,” said Jim Parks, a spokesman for the state education department.

“We have so much construction in the Appalachian areas that we have some districts that have essentially run out of level land to put schools on,” he said.

Information for this story was contributed by staff writer Peter Schmidt.

A version of this article appeared in the March 20, 1991 edition of Education Week as School-Construction Issues Play Key Role in Equity Debate