School Climate & Safety

NCES Report Pegs School Repair Costs At $127 Billion

By Alan Richard — July 12, 2000 3 min read

Though many of the nation’s schools are in adequate physical condition, a substantial number—especially in districts that serve poorer students in urban and rural areas—need repairs, according to new federal data.

Some $127 billion is needed to make all necessary repairs and additions to school facilities, the report from the National Center for Education Statistics concludes.

For More Information

Read “Condition of America’s Public School Facilities: 1999,” from the National Center for Education Statistics. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

That total is close to the $112 billion estimated by the U.S. General Accounting Office in 1995, but far less than the $322 billion estimated two months ago by the National Education Association. (“NEA Pegs School Building Needs at $332 Billion,” May 10, 2000.)

The NCES report is based on questionnaire data collected last year from 903 public elementary and secondary schools, weighted to produce national estimates.

The latest report, combined with the earlier studies, shows that school districts need additional sources of money to pay for mounting school repair bills and new buildings needed in growing areas, said Joe Agron, the editor in chief of American School & University magazine, which tracks school construction.

“It really is beyond most states and local governments to get the funding needed to improve their school facilities,” he argued. “If anything, this will just shine more light and bring more attention to the fact that there is a national problem out there.”

Repair Needs Highlighted

The report by the NCES, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education, found that one in three districts uses portable classrooms, which have become increasingly popular in recent years. Though the portable structures can provide flexibility and ease crowding, “the problem is when schools put them on the site as the temporary solution, and 20 years later, they’re still on the site,” Mr. Agron said. “They’re not built for that.”

Other findings include:

  • Half of public schools reported being underenrolled, while about one in four were overcrowded. Large schools and schools with high percentages of minority students were more likely to be crowded than smaller schools or ones with fewer minority students. Schools with higher levels of student poverty were more likely to report that their facilities were in less-than-adequate condition.
  • Three in four schools needed repairs; the average cost estimate for repairs to a school was $2.2 million.
  • One in four schools reported at least part of their facilities to be “less than adequate.” About 3.5 million students attend school in facilities that need at least partly to be replaced.
  • Eighty percent of schools reported that their original buildings were in adequate or better condition.
  • One in five schools reported problems with “life safety” conditions, such as flaws in safety devices, roofs, or electrical systems, and four in 10 reported environmental problems, such as a lack of ventilation.

Calls for Spending Renewed

The findings reinforce well-documented facilities problems and crowded schools in urban districts such as New York City, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. Plenty of smaller districts also struggle with facilities shortcomings, especially in parts of the Southeast and West.

In recent years, states and districts have moved to address the problems. The strong economy has spurred more school construction, and appears to have helped more districts pass local bond issues for buildings, Mr. Agron said.

Districts nationally spent $16 billion on construction in 1999, he said, and they plan to spend about $75.4 billion on facilities during the next three years. About half the money spent over the next three years will go for renovations, Mr. Agron added.

Despite that progress, serious problems remain in many districts, he said. “Of the one or two that say they’re addressing their facilities needs,” he said, “there’s a dozen that are trying to keep up and just doing what they can in trying to provide safe facilities.”

At the national level, several proposals in Congress seek to provide federal aid for school facilities. They include President Clinton’s plan, which would provide $25 billion for construction and renovation, plus $6.5 billion in emergency loans, and a new GOP proposal unveiled late last month.

U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley used the release of the NCES report to renew the administration’s calls for more spending. “In this time of tremendous prosperity, it is unacceptable to have students attending schools that are unsafe or unhealthy,” he said in a written statement.

A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as NCES Report Pegs School Repair Costs At $127 Billion


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