Across the country, schools generally pay for major building upgrades by taking on debt through bonds that they pay back over a number of years. And in most of the United States, school districts need support merely from a simple majority of voters to pass those bonds.
But 10 states buck that trend, requiring more than a simple majority. School districts in those states have a steeper path to funding large projects, whether the construction of new buildings or the replacement of an outdated HVAC system.
California requires 55 percent in favor; Missouri requires 57 percent; seven states require 60 percent; and one state—Idaho—requires support from a whopping two-thirds of voters. So even if a majority of voters in those states back school facilities bonds, it might not be enough.
Those 10 states collectively are home to 4,000 of the nation’s roughly 13,000 public school districts. They enroll 5 million students—roughly 10 percent of the nation’s total public K-12 enrollment.
The state-by-state breakdown of voting requirements for school bonds comes from a new working paper analyzing the impacts of school building investments. The paper is written by researchers Barbara Biasi, an assistant professor of economics at the Yale School of Management; Julien Lafortune, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California; and David Schönholzer, assistant professor of economics at Stockholm University’s Institute for International Economic Studies.
School districts in states with higher thresholds of voter support for bonds have bigger hurdles to overcome in order to finance building improvements ranging from HVAC upgrades and roof replacements to building additions and new athletic fields, according to the authors.
That means bonds passed in those districts tend to be only for “truly essential” projects, the authors write.
A recent ProPublica report found that dozens of school districts in Idaho in the last two decades secured majority support from voters for construction bonds, but failed to get the bonds approved because voter support fell short of the state’s required threshold of a two-thirds majority. Many school buildings in the state are crumbling, the report says.
Advocates for rural schools in Washington state, meanwhile, have been pushing for decades to convince lawmakers to lower the voter threshold for bond approval, which is 60 percent. The Wahkiakum district there recently tried and failed to persuade the state Supreme Court that the state bears financial responsibility for fixing its dilapidated school facilities because the local district can’t raise enough funds on its own.
America would need to spend $85 billion more than it currently does annually on school buildings to ensure that each one is modern and safe for students and staff to occupy, according to a 2021 report from the nonprofit Well Building Institute and a coalition of school building advocates.
The building upgrades necessary to bring America’s school buildings to that point matter for students’ academic achievement, and especially in low-wealth districts and districts with large shares of students of color, according to the researchers.
In those districts, facilities improvements such as HVAC system replacements and plumbing and furnace upgrades can lead to statistically significant test score increases equivalent to 10 percent of the gap between high- and low-income districts’ academic outcomes. In other words, the right kind of school facility upgrade can effectively close 10 percent of the academic achievement gap between high- and low-wealth school districts.
But taking on debt to fund those improvements has consequences: The nation’s schools collectively spend more than $21 billion a year just paying back debt they incur from school building projects, that report says. That’s more than the entire allocation of Title I funds the federal government sends each year to high-need schools.
Here’s a look at the states where passing a bond for school construction is the most challenging.