School Climate & Safety

Facilities Spending Criticized as Uneven

By Laura Greifner — October 30, 2006 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 7 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said the Campaign for Fiscal Equity is based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

States and school districts spent almost $600 billion on building and renovating schools from 1995 to 2004, an amount that far exceeds earlier expectations, concludes a report released last week.

But the money, by and large, did not go to the disadvantaged districts that needed it the most, the authors say.

Read the report, “Growth and Disparity: A Decade of U.S. Public School Construction 1995-2004,” available from the 21st Century School Fund.

“Our analysis reaffirms our worst suspicions,” Mary W. Filardo, the executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, one of the members of the partnership that produced the report, writes in its foreword. “Despite record spending on school construction, low-income and minority students, who already experience disadvantages, have had far less investment in their school facilities than their more affluent, white counterparts.”

Besides receiving the least money for facilities, the report says, high-poverty, predominantly minority districts were more likely than better-off districts to use the funds for basic safety needs, such as roof repairs or asbestos removal. Schools in the more affluent districts were likelier to spend their money for improvements intended to directly enhance learning, such as science laboratories and computer rooms.

Over the 10-year period studied, the most disadvantaged students received about half as much school construction aid as their wealthier counterparts, the report estimates. The researchers divided areas into five brackets based on median household income and analyzed the amount and types of construction done in each income bracket

Building Disparities

Far more money was spent between 1995 and 2004 to build and renovate schools in districts educating children from well-to-do families than in districts enrolling children from poor families.

*Click image to see the full chart.

Click to enlarge: Building Disparities

Note: Family affluence based on percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches.
SOURCE: 21st Century School Fund

One reason that the report’s estimate of total expenditures is higher than earlier estimates of need is that it takes into account previously overlooked costs, such as land acquisition, furnishings, and interest payments on loans, according to the authors.

A report issued by the National Education Association in 2000 estimated that $322 billion was needed to repair and upgrade the nation’s schools, including construction of new schools. In a 1995 report, the congressional watchdog agency now called the Government Accountability Office put the price tag for school repairs and renovations at about $112 billion, a figure that did not include new construction.

Seeking Accountability

Instead of asking for more money, Ms. Filardo and the other authors of the new report, “Growth and Disparity: A Decade of U.S. Public School Construction, 1995-2004,” are calling on the federal government to include facilities accountability in federal education laws, including the No Child Left Behind Act.

“[Facilities are] not on the radar of the U.S. Department of Education,” Ms. Filardo said in an interview. “In terms of a larger educational context, this is an area that’s been ignored by many.”

The possibility of including school facilities spending requirements in federal law does not look promising, according to Education Department officials.

“Federal funding is targeted toward children in poverty and is meant to supplement, not supplant, state and local spending,” said Chad Colby, a spokesman for the department. “There are no plans for us to get involved in school construction, as part of the reauthorization [of No Child Left Behind] or anything else.”

Thomas A. Kube, the executive director of the Scotsdale, Ariz.-based Center for Educational Facility Planners International, said his organization has been making recommendations for some time for the federal government to play a larger role in facilities spending. Despite those efforts, he is not optimistic that the Bush administration will change its stance in response to the new findings about inequities in school facilities spending.

The report also offers recommendations about the collection of data to make such accountability measures feasible. “We need greater understanding of the real conditions our students and teachers face, the ways school buildings and communities affect one another, and the costs and efficiencies of various design and building measures,” the report reads.

To that end, it calls for the National Center for Education Statistics to expand its Common Core of Data to include information on the condition and use of public school buildings. As it is, the Common Core includes statistics on a number of factors—such as the number of students by grade level, average daily attendance, and school revenues by source—but does not collect data on school facilities.

Mark S. Schneider, the NCES commissioner, said he could not comment on the report because he served as a consultant for the 21st Century School Fund—a nonprofit organization that works to build and modernize urban school facilities—before being named commissioner in November 2005. He said he developed some data for the “Growth and Disparity” report as part of his consultant work.

Mr. Schneider noted, however, that the NCES currently has a fast-response school survey under review that would involve school principals’ reporting on the state of their facilities.

The data for the “Growth and Disparity” report were analyzed by the Building Educational Success Together, or BEST, partnership, created in 2001 with support from the Ford Foundation. The Washington-based partnership is made up of eight national and local organizations: the 21st Century School Fund, the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, all in Washington; the Center for Cities and Schools at the University of California, Berkeley; the Education Law Center in Newark, N.J.; the KnowledgeWorks Foundation in Cincinnati; the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group in Chicago; and New Visions for Public Schools in New York City.

BEST purchased data from McGraw-Hill Construction, a provider of information on the construction industry, and examined the scale, distribution, and scope of school construction spending from 1995 to 2004 to compile its data. The Ford Foundation provided funding for the research study.

Facilities Lawsuits

Schools’ construction budgets are generally determined at the local level and are separate from their annual operating budgets. States spend varying amounts on construction, and in some cases don’t get involved at all.

However, the trend is toward states’ augmentation of local districts’ construction funding, according to Molly A. Hunter, the managing director of the National Access Network, an affiliate of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which is leading school finance litigation in New York. The CFE is based in New York City.

“It used to be totally a local thing,” Ms. Hunter said. “Now, more and more states are providing [facilities] funding, but it varies enormously.”

According to the National Access Network, 35 states have faced lawsuits involving school facilities funding. The highly publicized case of Abbott v. Burke in New Jersey was one of the first to link the state of school facilities to inherent inequalities between districts.

As a result of a 1985 state supreme court decision in the case, the state was ordered to address facilities deficiencies in 30 of its poorest districts. In 2000, New Jersey allocated $8.6 billion for school construction. Of that amount, $6 billion was earmarked for schools deemed to have insufficient facilities in the Abbott decision.

“Growth and Disparity” uses New Jersey as an example of a state where lawsuits involving school facilities funding have had a positive effect on the state of school buildings. The report compares per-student expenditures before and two years after successful school finance court decisions. The researchers conclude that the states with successful court cases spent on average $158 more per student annually than states with unsuccessful lawsuits or no facilities-related cases.

Despite the report’s findings, Ms. Filardo of the 21st Century School Fund was quick to point out that knowing how much was spent on construction, and where the money went, is not enough to predict costs in the future.

“We spent this much, but do we need to spend the same amount going forward?” she said. “We don’t know nationally how much of a dent was really made. We know it was a lot more than people thought, and it was not yet enough.”

Rising expenses have resulted in larger-than-anticipated construction costs for many districts. In Los Angeles, for example, mounting costs paired with less state aid than expected could push a large construction and renovation program considerably above its $19.2 billion budget. (Read the related story, “L.A. Building Program Faces Possible $2.5 Billion Shortfall,” this issue.)

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 2006 edition of Education Week as Facilities Spending Criticized As Uneven

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