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
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

See Also

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.

See Also

Image of an evacuation plan.

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.


Student Well-Being K-12 Essentials Forum Boosting Student and Staff Mental Health: What Schools Can Do
Join this free virtual event based on recent reporting on student and staff mental health challenges and how schools have responded.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Curriculum Webinar
Practical Methods for Integrating Computer Science into Core Curriculum
Dive into insights on integrating computer science into core curricula with expert tips and practical strategies to empower students at every grade level.
Content provided by

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management The Missed Opportunity for Public Schools and Climate Change
More cities are creating climate action plans, but schools are often left out of the equation.
4 min read
Global warming illustration, environment pollution, global warming heating impact concept. Change climate concept.
Collage by Gina Tomko/Education Week and iStock/Getty Images Plus
School & District Management 13 States Bar School Board Members From Getting Paid. Here's Where It's Allowed (Map)
There are more calls to increase school board members' pay, or to allow them to be paid at all.
Two professional adults, with a money symbol.
School & District Management Opinion Bad Sleep Is a Problem for Principals. Here’s What to Do About It
Our new study highlights the connection between stress and sleep among school leaders, write three researchers.
Eleanor Su-Keene, David E. DeMatthews & Alex Keene
5 min read
Stylized illustration of an alarm clock over a background which is split in half, with one half being nighttime and one half being daytime.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week via Canva
School & District Management 5 Mistakes Schools Make When Building SEL Programs
Experts weigh in on how to avoid parental and community backlash against social-emotional learning initiatives.
5 min read
Woman finding her way to a happy smile icon in the middle of labyrinth like maze with school subject icons ghosted over a cloudy sky textured background.
iStock/Getty Images Plus