School Climate & Safety Explainer

School Construction

By Education Week Staff — September 21, 2004 4 min read
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Editor’s Note: For more recent information on school construction, please read our 2021 explainer, The Dismal State of School Infrastructure, in Charts.

As the country’s 91,380 public schools age, states and school districts are faced with the immense task of making all schools safe, comfortable, and compatible with the latest technology. In addition to modernizing aging schools, many districts need to build entirely new schools for rapidly growing student enrollments. Research shows that the quality of school facilities has an impact on student achievement (Schneider, 2002).

But coming up with the money to pay for school maintenance and construction often takes a back seat to more pressing budget concerns, especially with the recent economic doldrums. According to a 2000 National Center for Education Statistics study, one in four schools reported having at least one type of onsite building in “less than adequate” condition. A much greater proportion, 76 percent, reported that they would have to spend some money on repairs, renovations, or modernization to bring schools up to par.

But bringing all schools up to par won’t be cheap. In 1995, the U.S. General Accounting Office issued a report indicating that it would cost $112 billion to bring existing K-12 schools throughout the country into good overall condition. In 1999, the U.S. Department of Education estimated it would cost $127 billion. In 2000, the National Education Association nearly tripled that figure when it placed a $322 billion price tag on the cost of needed school repairs, construction, and technology. Of the $322 billion, the NEA estimated that at least $268 billion was needed for construction and repairs alone.

Unlike the financing of public schools’ day-to-day operations, which is provided in large part by their states, the burden of school construction and renovation often falls on local districts. But local budgets have had a hard time keeping up with the demand for new schools and the repair of aging ones.

School districts spent more than $24 billion on school construction in 2002, with $11.7 billion being spent on new schools, $7 billion on modernizations, and $5.7 billion on additions to current buildings. School districts projected that they would spend an additional $93.7 billion from 2003 to 2005 on continuing projects (American School & University, 2003). States help districts with school construction to some extent. According to Education Week’s Quality Counts 2004, 40 states and the District of Columbia provide grants or debt service for capital outlay or construction, and 26 states and the District track the condition of all school facilities. All totaled, the 50 states and the District of Columbia dedicated a little more than $16 billion for capital outlay or construction in FY 2004, according to data collected for the report.

Although financing school construction is a major concern, districts also have other issues to consider when addressing the need for more modern schools. One issue is that research has shown smaller schools improve school climate and student achievement (Lee and Smith, 1995). According to Quality Counts 2004, only 18 percent of students attend elementary schools with 350 or fewer students, and only 30 percent of students attend high schools with 900 or fewer students. But creating smaller schools can be a costly and complicated issue for districts already swamped under routine renovation and construction needs.

One solution is to turn larger schools into subdivided, smaller units. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, has dedicated almost $700 million to creating 1,400 high schools of 400 or fewer students, mostly in urban areas (Toch, 2003).

Another related point of controversy is whether districts should tear down old schools to build new ones, or renovate the older buildings instead. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, many urban districts have to make a choice between the historic and neighborhood charm of older school buildings and the more recent standard of up-to-date school buildings on large plots of land in a more distant location.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation argues that districts should avoid such “mega-school sprawl,” which it describes as the building of large educational facilities in remote locations. The organization argues that although not every historic school can be preserved, many can be improved to meet current technology, comfort, and safety requirements. Some factors that should be considered in such a decision are a school’s age, design, architectural significance, and location. The National Trust also touts the benefits older schools have in promoting civic pride and a sense of community (2000).

Regardless of whether a district decides to build a new school or renovate an older one, it still faces serious design decisions. These include creative ideas for better learning environments, environmental considerations, indoor air quality, student safety, and more.

One of the latest trends in school construction is that of “sustainable school design.” This term refers to using natural resources and maintenance-free materials in school architecture in order to cut energy costs and limit the environmental impact of schools (Pacific Northwest Pollution Prevention Resource Center, 2001). The trend is important because districts spend $6 billion annually on school energy costs. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, districts could save 25 percent of that money with better school design and the use of energy-efficient technologies (2003).

Agron, J. “Strong Showing,” 29th Annual Official Education Construction Report, American School & University, 2003.
Education Week, Quality Counts 2004: Count Me In, Jan. 7, 2004.
Lee, V.E., and Smith, J.B., “Effects of high school restructuring and size on early gains in achievement and engagement,” Sociology of Education, 68(4), 241-270, 1995.
National Education Association, “Modernizing Our Schools: What Will It Cost?,” 2000.
National Trust for Historic Preservation, “Historic Neighborhood Schools in the Age of Sprawl: Why Johnny Can’t Walk to School,” 2000.
Pacific Northwest Pollution Prevention Resource Center, “Sustainable Design for Schools,” 2001.
Schneider, M. “Do School Facilities Affect Academic Outcomes?”, National Clearinghouse for Education Facilities, November 2002.
Toch, T. “Small Schools, Big Ideas,” Education Week, 23(14), pp. 26-29, December 3, 2003.
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, “Condition of America’s Public School Facilities: 1999,” (#NCES 2000-032), 2000.
U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, “Rebuild America 2002: Saving Energy, Saving Money, Reducing Pollution,” no date.
U.S. General Accounting Office, “School Facilities: Condition of America’s Schools” (#HEHS 95-61), 1995.

How to Cite This Article
Education Week Staff. (2004, September 21). School Construction. Education Week. Retrieved Month Day, Year from


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