School & District Management Explainer

The Dismal State of School Infrastructure, in Charts

By Mark Lieberman — April 27, 2021 2 min read
A worker finishes up for the day at the Cardoza Senior High School, as renovations are under way, Monday, March 11, 2013 in Washington.
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A high school in Pennsylvania has leaky pipes and broken fire alarms. The ceiling collapsed at an empty elementary school in Connecticut, causing it to flood. A public pre-K facility in North Carolina found lead in its water fountains and faucets.

These are just a handful of recent examples that illustrate the woefully inadequate condition of many of America’s public school buildings. Insufficient and inequitable public investment, growing nationwide K-12 enrollment, and evolving technology needs have created a situation in which thousands of school buildings are years, or even decades, behind on repairs and upgrades. Millions of students learn in buildings that are unsafe and overcrowded.

A wide body of academic research has shown that lawmakers’ inability to maintain school buildings has led to lower academic outcomes for students and a lower well-being for the teachers and administrators who spend long periods of time in school buildings.

President Joe Biden is proposing a $100 billion federal investment in K-12 school building infrastructure as part of a $2 trillion spending package that also includes funds for electrifying school buses, expanding broadband access, and eliminating the nation’s lead pipes. Congress is poised to vote on the proposal in the coming months.

Here’s how dismal the state of school infrastructure is, how we got here, and what impact Biden’s plan could have, if approved.

How big is the problem?

Millions of children travel to and from school in environmentally hazardous, diesel-fueled buses. Those kids then spend their days in buildings that are outdated, overcrowded and unsafe.

Federal, state and local lawmakers collectively need to invest more money in order for schools to be deemed safe.

How did we get here?

School buildings have evolved to serve a growing list of functions for a ballooning number of students. But policy makers have little up-to-date data on the condition of those buildings, making it difficult for them to strategically target taxpayers’ money.

Aside from a handful of small grant programs, the federal government hasn’t invested in school infrastructure in a major way since 1935. Some states have invested far more in construction costs than others.

Overall, states invest little in school building improvements, leaving local governments to foot most of the bill. School districts in property-rich areas have a far easier time raising money to build and maintain their schools, meaning that wealthier families have more access to safer school buildings than poor families.

With minimal state and federal support, many school districts fund infrastructure projects by seeking voter approval to issue bonds and go into debt. The more debt a district has, the more interest it has to pay on that debt—money that could otherwise go toward classroom costs.

Will Biden’s infrastructure plan help?

Biden has proposed to invest more than $100 billion in America’s school infrastructure. School funding advocates say those dollars would go a long way, but they wouldn’t be enough to solve all the existing problems. That money could, however, lay the groundwork for a more concerted nationwide effort to more actively maintain school buildings for the long haul.

Laura Baker, Creative Director contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2021 edition of Education Week as The Dismal State of School Infrastructure

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