School & District Management

The Average U.S. School Building Dates Back to the End of the Vietnam War

By Mark Lieberman — February 15, 2024 4 min read
School Renovation in Washington Heights, Chicago
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The average school building in America is nearly half a century old, and almost a third of the nation’s public schools have at least one portable or non-permanent structure on their campus, new federal data show.

A growing body of research shows students perform better on tests when their school buildings are well-maintained and modern. The health consequences of prolonged exposure to toxins like mold and asbestos in school buildings can last long into adulthood. And the emergence of COVID put renewed pressure on schools to ensure students and staff are breathing clean air.

But a large share of the nation’s 100,000 schools have buildings in major disrepair. Close to half of educators surveyed by the EdWeek Research Center in 2023 gave their buildings a “C” grade or worse. Advocates estimate the nation would need to collectively spend $85 billion a year on top of its current school facilities investments in order to ensure every school building gets adequately renovated.

The new figures on the state of the nation’s school buildings come from the latest edition of the School Pulse Panel survey, published on Feb. 15. The survey of 1,625 public schools was conducted in December 2023 by the National Center for Education Statistics, a research arm of the U.S. Department of Education.

Here’s a breakdown of school building ages, according to the federal survey:

  • 21 percent of U.S. school buildings were constructed after the year 2000;
  • 21 percent were built between 1970 and 1999;
  • 13 percent of school buildings date back to the 1960s;
  • 13 percent were built in the 1950s; and
  • 12 percent were built before the ‘50s.

(The remaining 20 percent of respondents said they didn’t know the age of their school building.)

Among schools that have been renovated, the average time elapsed since the last renovation is 14 years, according to the survey. Nearly a third of schools reported they had never been renovated, though that number likely includes schools that are too new to warrant an upgrade.

The bulk of funding for school modernization and construction projects comes from local governments, which vary greatly in their capacity to raise tax revenue from their residents. Many states contribute little or no money specifically for school facilities, and the federal government hasn’t made a substantial investment in school buildings since before World War II.

The surge of federal relief aid that schools received during the first year of the pandemic has pushed some school building projects forward, however. Slightly less than one-quarter of the federal survey respondents said in December 2023 that they had a renovation project currently in progress—a relatively small but striking percentage, since school building projects tend to be clustered in the summer when fewer students are in school.

Three in 10 schools have a temporary or portable structure—but that number represents a small decline from nearly two decades ago. In 2005, the last time the federal government asked schools about temporary buildings, 37 percent reported having them.

See Also

A trash can and pink kiddie pool are used to collect water that leaks from the roof into the media center at Green County High School in Snow Hill, N.C..
A trash can and pink kiddie pool are used to collect water that leaks from the roof into the media center at Green County High School in Snow Hill, N.C.
Alex Boerner for Education Week

Gaps in access to specialized spaces

The new data also highlight that, apart from age, school facilities vary greatly in terms of what they offer students.

The vast majority of school buildings reported having dedicated library space. But roughly 11 percent said they don’t.

Thirty percent of schools reported having multiple STEM labs. But an even larger share—38 percent—reported having none at all. The remaining 32 percent said they have one STEM lab.

Only 69 percent of schools have a gymnasium, and 68 percent have an all-purpose grass field. That means slightly less than one-third of schools lacks at least one of these.

Certain types of schools are more likely to lack these facilities than others.

Schools with mostly white students, for example, are more likely than schools with mostly students of color to have dedicated library space. Schools in cities are also less likely than schools in rural areas to have dedicated library space. Smaller schools—those with fewer than 300 students—are also less likely than larger schools to have dedicated library space.

022024 facilities lieberman lb library

Schools with more than 1,000 students are far more likely to have a STEM lab than schools with fewer than 300 students. STEM labs were also more likely at schools in the South than in the Midwest, and in middle and high schools than elementary schools.

022024 facilities lieberman lb

Here are a few other facilities highlights from the survey responses:

  • The outdoor learning trend that accelerated during the pandemic may be taking hold. Slightly more than 1 in 3 schools reported having a dedicated outdoor instructional space.
  • Thirty-nine percent of schools have a dedicated indoor air quality coordinator who monitors building conditions and complaints.
  • Eighteen percent of schools have an “anti-idling” program, with signs and staff monitors, to ensure that parents don’t let their engines run for long periods while they’re picking up or dropping off students.

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