America's school buildings don't make the grade

Published: Saturday, March 30 2013 2:10 p.m. MDT

Growing recognition that a school's social and disciplinary atmosphere has profound impact on student achievement has prompted shifts in federal education policy.


Everyone from the president of the United States to the PTA president down the street worries about what goes on inside America's school buildings. Two new reports suggest that some of that hand-wringing should be directed toward the buildings themselves.

U.S. schools are facing a $271 billion deferred maintenance bill just to bring buildings up to working order, said a U.S. Green Building Council report released this month. That's more than $5,000 per student. Modernizing outdated schools could double that dollar amount, the report said.

Schools got a big, fat D on the 2013 Report Card for America's Infrastructure, a report issued every four years by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). The report gave infrastructure — transportation, water systems, bridges and dams, waste disposal facilities and schools — in the United States an overall grade of D+. Schools didn't do even that well.

Public school enrollment is projected to increase through 2019, but state and local school construction funding continues to drop, the ASCE report said. Spending on U.S. school construction declined to about $10 billion in 2012 — about half the level spent prior to the recession. Meanwhile, the condition of school facilities continues to be a significant concern for communities.

Both reports decried the absence of recent national data on school facilities, noting that last time the federal government did a comprehensive study on the condition of the nation's public school facilities was 18 years ago, in 1995.

Decisions about building and maintaining public schools rest with local districts, although state and federal money enters those equations to varying degrees, said Gordon Beck, director of school facilities and organization for Washington's state school system.

"The simple reality of it is that local taxpayers will bear the burden by passing bond issues," said Beck, who helped write a federal resource guide for school facilities management. (When voters approve a bond issue to finance a school project, a district sells bonds to cover the cost, then pays back the bond with tax dollars.)

The building boost

The reasons for ensuring that school buildings are up-to-date and in good repair are many. Research shows that school buildings can affect student learning, for instance. A 2013 study in "Building and Environment," an English research journal, found that good classroom conditions could increase learning rates by as much as 25 percent.

Factors considered in the study included quality and quantity of natural light, noise, temperature, air quality, crowding, layout and the school's ability to provide varied learning environments.

Modernized buildings save money on energy costs, too. The school district in Loudon County, Va., saved more than $28 million over the past five years by constructing new buildings more sustainably and updating inefficient systems at older schools, according to Education Week, a national newspaper focused on K-12 learning.

And building a new school or updating an old one presents an opportunity to create a school built for 21st-century students — technology-enabled and adapted to collaborative learning.

21st-century learning

"The whole idea when I went to school was that kids should keep quiet, sit up straight and pay attention. They got it all wrong," said Philip J. Poinelli, a certified educational facilities planner living in Cambridge, Mass.

Brain research shows that traditional classrooms designed for stand-and-deliver instruction aren't the best learning environments, Poinelli said.

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