School & District Management

These School Building Improvements Are Most Likely to Boost Test Scores

By Mark Lieberman — October 05, 2023 4 min read
An excavator out in front of a school renovation site, with the entrance doors in the background
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School districts, particularly those serving many students in poverty and students of color, can expect student test scores to rise significantly after they invest local dollars to fix leaky HVAC systems or patch failing roofs.

When school districts invest local dollars in new athletic facilities or expanded classroom space, however, student test scores don’t necessarily change. But local property values typically rise.

These are two takeaways from a recently published study of the far-reaching effects of school district investments in facilities. The sweeping report, published in working-paper form this summer, analyzes data from more than 15,000 school bond ballot referenda in 28 states between 1990 and 2017. The report was written by 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.

The conclusions build on a growing body of evidence asserting that higher-quality school buildings translate to better academic outcomes for vulnerable children—and higher property values for the communities that surround the improved facilities.

The paper’s findings suggest that students benefit most when extremely low-quality facilities get better, rather than when districts improve buildings that were already in good shape, said Mary Filardo, executive director of the nonprofit 21st Century School Fund and a leading national advocate for school infrastructure improvements.

“All the more argument for intervention by states and the feds for schools in poor condition in low-wealth communities—a targeted program, from poor to good,” Filardo said.

Where does improving school buildings have the biggest impact?

More than three-quarters of the billions of dollars schools spend each year on construction and maintenance come from local sources. Unlike operational expenses like teacher salaries, schools generally pay for building upgrades by taking on debt through bonds that they pay back over a number of years.

But this process is easier in some places than others.

Districts that serve large shares of high-poverty students and students of color often have costlier facilities needs to address, even as the local tax base from which to draw support is smaller.

For instance, the Chicago school district, where a majority of students are Black or Latino and 73 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price meals, recently published a report showing that fixing all of the problems with its facilities would cost more than $14 billion. That’s roughly one-fifth of recent annual spending on school buildings nationwide, for a district whose buildings serve just 330,000 of the nation’s 50 million public school students and that is projected to be serving fewer in the coming years.

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Students walk through school at the end of the day at Swampscott High School, which is collocated and shares space with the senior center in Swampscott, Mass., on March 8, 2023. As America’s population ages and the number of school-aged children decrease, district and community leaders are finding ways to combine services and locations.
Students walk through school at the end of the day at Swampscott High School, which is collocated and shares space with the senior center in Swampscott, Mass., on March 8, 2023. As America’s population ages and the number of school-aged children decrease, district and community leaders are finding ways to combine services and locations.
Sophie Park for Education Week

It’s in higher-need districts like Chicago, authors of the report show, where facilities upgrades have the biggest effect on student test scores.

In fact, high-wealth districts tend to see only a negligible bump in academic performance and a comparatively smaller increase in home prices after investing to improve their facilities. But in low-wealth districts and districts with large shares of students of color, facilities upgrades 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.

“The fact that we see some big improvements for some of these basic investments really suggests that there’s some unmet needs,” Lafortune said.

Why do facilities projects have a bigger impact in some states than others?

In addition to the kind of facility upgrade, state policies governing local district spending play a role in the size of the effect a district might realize from school building improvements.

Some states require a majority of the district’s voters to approve a bond, while others require a harder-to-achieve supermajority. Some states impose limits on how much debt districts can assume at once.

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cheyennezj/iStock/Getty

Schools in states with low debt limits and high thresholds for voter approval tend to see greater improvements in test scores resulting from facilities improvements. The data might appear to show that those policies are effective, but the report argues the opposite: Fewer facilities projects take place in those states, so school buildings tend to be in worse shape by the time major improvements happen. The upgrades that do take place, then, are the most essential for improving learning conditions.

In Idaho, for example, dozens of school bonds in the last two decades earned majority support from voters but failed to capture the legally mandated 67-percent supermajority, according to a ProPublica report that detailed dire school building conditions across the state.

According to the report, states with bigger barriers of entry for school facilities improvements tend to show “inefficiently low levels of spending” on school buildings compared with states where districts can more easily convince voters to approve bonds for capital spending.

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