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Hard Hat Area: The Deteriorating State of School Buildings

The spending bill passed last month by Congress didn't include the monies President Clinton had asked for to address the crumbling state of America's school infrastructure. Education World examines the problem, offers resources for school administrators, and shares news of what some communities are doing to put their schools on "firm foundations."

A Christian Science Monitor editorial cartoon (8/28/97) depicts a grandfatherly figure meeting a young raingear-clad student on the street. Grandpa, holding a newspaper emblazoned with the headline "Neglected School Roofs Leak Like Sieves," says to the kid:

"Walking to school, eh? It builds character, trudging through whatever Mother Nature can dish out! Why, in my day"
The youngster, peering from under the slicker's hood and referring to the umbrella he holds in his hand, interrupts:
"I've got a ride to school, Grandpa. This is for the classroom!"

Funny? You've got to laugh but leaking roofs and crumbling facades are not a laughing matter to millions of schoolchildren and to school officials in countless school districts.

And, in many districts, there's little help in sight

Last month, President Clinton signed into law a spending bill that addresses many problems facing our schools; but the monies Clinton hoped would be included to address the deteriorating condition of school buildings were not there.

"Tragically, the majority in Congress turned down the President's plan tobuild, repair, or modernize over 5,000 school nationwide," said Secretary of Education Richard Riley in his official address, adding, "The time to modernize America's schools is now, while the economy is in good shape and the resources are available. I look forward to working with a new Congress to get those jobs done."


  • In the San Fernando Valley of California, students in some schools attend school year-round -- in schools that don't have air conditioning! Not much learning happens in a classroom where the temperature hovers in the upper 90s.

  • Students in on Leadville, Colorado, school grown use to the leaky windows and ceilings and the buckling floor tiles that have plagued that school for some time.

  • Last April, more than 2,000 students in schools in California's Bay Area cut class one day to protest conditions in their schools. The students jumped on BART and gathered outside Concord's new police station, its newness a marked contrast to their deteriorating school buildings.

In countless communities across America, students are making-do in buildings with crumbling foundations, outdated (even cloth-covered!) wiring, and heating systems that date back more than fifty years.

"The roofs are falling down, there are leaks everywhere," one student at last year's Bay Area protest told the San Francisco Examiner. "This is not an environment for learning. We should not put our students through this. We should not put our future through this."


President Clinton's proposal had called for School Modernization Tax Credits to pay interest on nearly $22 billion in bonds to be used to help rebuild, modernize, and build more than 5,000 public schools.

"This year, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave our schools an "F" in its infrastructure report card, worse than in roads, bridges, mass transit, and every other category of investment," said President Clinton in an address last April. "One third of all our schools need major repairs. More than one half have major building problems."

"The inventory of repair need is large and growing," the President added. "The General Accounting Office (GAO) estimated that the cost of bringing the nation's schools into "good overall condition" was $112 billion."

Among the other statistics revealed in the GAO's Report on school facilities:

  • Fourteen million students attend schools in need of extensive repair or replacement.

  • Sixty percent of schools need at least one major building feature repaired or replaced. More than 28,000 schools have less-than-adequate heating, ventilation, or air conditioning s ystems; more than 23,000 schools have less-than-adequate plumbing; and more than 21,000 schools have less than adequate roofs.

  • Half of America's schools -- housing about 46 million students -- have unsatisfactory environmental conditions.

  • Forty-six percent of schools have inadequate wiring for computers, communication, and technology.

The American people support the president's modernization plan, according to a bipartisan poll released earlier this year. Seventy-four percent of voters supported significant investment in helping school districts to update facilities, according to the National Education Association.


"The condition of schools is related to student achievement," the president concluded. "A growing body of research links student achievement and behavior to the physical building conditions and overcrowding."

"Good facilities appear to be a pre-condition for students learning," states a 1998 School Modernization Day report from the U.S. Department of Education. Among the study results presented are the following:

  • A District of Columbia study found the students in schools in poor condition had achievement that was 6 percent below schools in fair condition and 11 percent below schools in excellent condition.

  • A 1993 study of rural Virginia high schools found that student scores on achievement tests were found to be up to 5 percentile points lower in buildings with lower quality ratings.

  • A 1996 study of urban Virginia high schools found achievement was as much as 11 percentile points lower in substandard buildings as compared to above-standard buildings.

Studies have also found a relationship between school conditions and the health and morale of school staff:

  • A 1988 study of State Teachers of the Year found that several aspects of the physical environment affected their teaching the most. The availability of quality classroom equipment and furnishings was most crucial, as was the ability to control classroom temperature.

  • A study of working conditions in urban schools concluded that "physical conditions have direct positive and negative effects on teachers' morale, sense of personal safety, [and] feelings of effectiveness in the classroom..." Despair and frustration were common feelings in dilapidated schools; hope and commitment were evident in a school where major renovations were underway.

  • Another 1988 study found that poor working conditions result in higher teacher absenteeism, reduced effort, lower effectiveness, lower morale, and reduced job satisfaction.


In January, 1995, the Citizen's Committee on Planning for Enrollment Growth submitted a report, "Bursting At the Seams," to the New York City Board of Education. That report projected enrollment growth of more than one million students by the year 2002.

But how could the city handle such an influx?

New York City is not alone. Many cities face the same problem -- planning for a growing student population and the accompanying overcrowding that is bound to result. Where will the money come from to accommodate and teach those students? Where will the space be found to build added classrooms in cities where space for building is at a premium? How can students really learn when they're jammed into spaces not meant for learning? Such conditions can have a "dire impact on learning," the report notes. Students have a difficult time concentrating on lessons and teachers are less apt to use innovative teaching approaches. Often, teachers must struggle just to maintain order in large classes!

Among the conditions noted in "Bursting At the Seams" were classrooms created in gymnasiums, laboratories, lunchrooms, closets, and even lavatories with boarded-over urinals; lunch periods that must be spread over longer periods, sometimes beginning as early as 9 a.m.; too few lockers to go around; and wasted time as hordes of students move from class to class.

"Bursting At the Seams" offered school officials a list of short-term strategies to relieve temporary overcrowding. Those strategies fall into two broad categories:

  • Schools can locate new spaces to use as classrooms. Leasing space is a quick, cost-effective way to obtain additional short-term space. Or local colleges, businesses, and non-profit groups might have spaces available for use. Moving administrative offices out of schools can free up additional space. Redistributing students/rezoning schools can spread students from overcrowded schools into other school districts that might be underutilized.

  • Schools can elect to use time more fully. The school day could be extended, starting earlier and ending later, to allow students to attend classes in shifts. Or the school calendar could be changed from a nine-month calendar to a twelve-month calendar to accommodate more students in existing buildings.

But city school officials aren't the only ones who face school building problems. Small communities are crying out for help too. With shrinking tax bases and large numbers of children living in poverty -- including large populations not even included in census counts! -- many small communities find themselves cash-strapped. School maintenance ends up being put off in favor of other pressing needs of the communities and their citizens.

"With half of the nation's public schools and nearly 40 percent of the nation's students, rural and small town schools receive only 22 percent of the total public expenditure on public education," says Charles Conrad, director of the Organization Concerned About Rural Education (OCRE), one of the largest coalitions ever assembled to focus on a single rural issue. "This disparity demonstrates the need for greater financial support for rural and small town schools."

A recent report by the National Education Association highlights the needs of schools in small communities. The report cites figures from the GAO study. In addition, it points out that teachers in rural and small town schools earn lower incomes, receive fewer benefits, are less educated, and are less experienced than teachers in city or suburban schools; they also are less likely to have participated in in-service or professional development programs.

The NEA survey of recent research clearly points out the need for greater funding of rural education, including better salaries and benefits for teachers, more expenditures to upgrade rural school facilities, and more opportunities for in-service professional training for teachers, OCRE officials add.

OCRE has launched an intensive grassroots campaign to rebuild America's schools. One feature of that campaign is a 26-minute video that shows rundown and dilapidated schools that exist in many rural and small towns today. It also describes successful efforts by two rural communities (Charlotte County, Virginia, and Wray, Colorado) to rehabilitate old and crumbling schools. A workbook designed to help local communities develop school rebuilding programs accompanies the video.

The purpose of the campaign, according to OCRE President Dale Lestina, is to show that dilapidated schools exist in rural America as well as in the inner cities. "We want to encourage local communities to develop school rebuilding programs as part of a total community development effort," he said. "Schools are important to rural communities, but they must be part of a broader program to improve the quality of rural living."


The gap between rich and poor school districts has been the subject of citizen- and district-mounted law suits in states such as New Jersey, Ohio, and Arizona. In other states, legislators have recognized the inequities and have allocated increased sums for school building projects in poorer school districts. Recognizing a need to make schools less dependent on property tax revenues, some communities have even adopted special sales taxes. The monies realized are put directly into education, often into school building and renovation funds.

In August, Sioux City, Iowa, citizens voted to increase the sales tax from 6 cents to 7 cents. The sales tax increase, which is expected to raise about $12 million, will be divided among nine school districts.

In 1996, voters in Georgia approved a measure that would give communities a right to decide whether they would approve a one-cent sales tax increase for school construction. According to an Education Week story (Georgia Schools Tap New Source for Construction, 6/3/98), "144 of the state's 180 school systems have asked their local voters to approve the five-year tax, and an overwhelming 129 of the have succeeded." This tax enables school districts to "pay as you go," instead of incurring millions of dollars in interest charges. The monies can also be used to pay off long-term debt on previous construction projects.

"If you had enough money in your pocket to pay for your house, that's a lot smarter than paying interest for 30 years," Kelly McCutchen, executive vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, told Education Week,

For some communities, the new tax plan comes with its share of problems. School districts are unable to predict the total amount of revenue that will come in as a result of the new tax. And small communities, with few large businesses to bring sales tax revenue into the community, can't collect the amounts that larger communities can collect. Some school officials have even charged that sloppy bookkeeping at the state level has kept their communities from getting their fair share. Others say that this tax can't replace state funding, which has declined in the 1990s. And, of course, some communities have defeated the tax idea when it was put up for a vote.


Investing in neighborhoods, most notably in school construction, impacts the entire neighborhood, says Bob Lanier, former mayor of Houston and now a member of the advisory council of the Rebuild America Coalition. The Coalition's goal is to raise in the coming presidential campaign the level of debate surrounding infrastructure programs, Lanier recently told the Houston Chronicle ("Former Mayor Pushes a Plan to Rebuild America's Schools," 4/19/98).

Such programs, Lanier points out, provide jobs, help the economy, show residents that government cares, reduce criminal activity, and motivate civic pride and involvement -- all while improving communities' public facilities. In addition, such efforts often stimulate additional community improvements.

So, it appears, the talk about the condition of America's school infrastructure is going to be around for awhile. The exclusion of monies in the spending bill recently passed by Congress -- and the work of groups such as the Rebuild America Coalition and the Organization Concerned About Rural Education -- should fuel added interest in the issue in the years ahead.

Perhaps someday, in the not-too-distant future, the American Society of Engineers will see fit to raise the failing grade it gave our school buildings.


  • Modern Schools, Better Learning A modern, well-equipped, disciplined learning environment makes for student achievement. This page from the NEA provides press releases, talking points, a list of supporting organizations, and other resources for those interested in the issue of America's crumbling school infrastructure.

  • Organization Concerned About Rural Education A Web site from a coalition of more than two dozen organizations dedicated to improvement of public education and economic development in rural America. Includes the latest news, a toolkit for working toward education improvements in rural communities, and other resources.

  • The National Clearinghouse for Education Facilities Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education's National Library of Education, the NCEF acquires, manages, and disseminates information relating to the nation's school personnel and allied professionals who plan, design, construct, as well as maintain educational facilities. The site includes links to related Internet resources.

  • School Construction and Design This site from the U.S. Department of Education includes an overview of national school modernization plans; and discussions about the need for a national school construction program and the impact of inadequate school facilities on student learning.

  • Millions of Students Go to Class in Run-Down Buildings and Repairs Needed at Schools Across the Nation Two Associated Press stories from the Detroit Free Press's Web site.

  • Bay Area Students Stage Walkout Thousands of Bay Area high school and middle school students gathered for a rally to protest the condition of public education in California.

  • Overcrowding in Urban Schools A 1995 ERIC Digest by Gary Burnett (from the ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education).

  • Deteriorating School Facilities and Student Learning A 1993 ERIC Digest: In many American schools, students and teachers find themselves in a physical environment that adversely affects their morale, and, in some cases, their health. To address a situation that is literally deteriorating, principals, superintendents, school business officials, school boards, and others are beginning to pursue innovative, grassroots solutions to the many challenges associated with maintaining school facilities.

  • Year-Round Education: A Strategy for Overcrowded Schools Another ERIC Digest from the ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education, this one by Morton Inger.

  • ERIC Database Type "school buildings" in the ERIC search engine for a long list of resources.

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Article by Gary Hopkins
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