About two decades ago, a consensus began to take root among educators and policymakers that school systems in the United States could no longer afford to ignore the inadequate building conditions that made teaching and learning difficult in many classrooms.

Since then, billions of dollars have been spent, and thousands of modern classrooms have been built to replace decrepit, deficient and dangerous spaces. In 2012, there seems to be no need to debate whether the quality of school facilities affects student performance—most agree that substandard facilities prevent many students from achieving their potential.

But it’s one thing to embrace the concept of improving school facilities to provide students a better education. It’s quite another thing to spend the money to make the concept a reality. Looking at estimates of the still staggering unmet facility needs in the nation’s schools, one could reach the conclusion that the goal of modernizing all U.S. schools is more of a pipe dream than a real possibility.

Recognizing a need

Twenty years ago, the baby boom generation had worked its way through elementary and secondary schools, and many education administrators found themselves in charge of hurriedly built and prematurely aging facilities that no longer provided a suitable learning environment for students.

An array of voices—the Education Writers Association, the American Association of School Administrators, muckraking authors like Jonathon Kozol—began to shine a spotlight on the deplorable conditions in many U.S. classrooms. American School & University began to focus its attention on the issue in 1992; the "Facilities Impact on Learning" series of articles sought to create awareness that the poor condition of school facilities was a national problem.

A 1995 report from the General Accounting Office put a hard number to the school facilities problem—$112 billion. Although some thought the estimate was too low, the figure was sizable enough to draw attention to school facilities as a national problem.

Other factors also were making it more likely that school systems would put more emphasis on upgrading their facilities:

•Court rulings compelled construction in some cases.

•Enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act meant that some school buildings had to be retrofitted to provide accessibility to people with disabilities.

•The rapid rise of the Internet and the realization that the access it could provide would be a powerful educational tool meant that many learning spaces had to be modified to accommodate the technology.

•The push among educators for fewer students per class meant that school systems had to build more classrooms.

•Improvements in energy-efficient building systems and a growing embrace of conservation and sustainable design strategies persuaded many school systems to upgrade their facilities and take advantage of those techniques.

Overriding all these factors was the nation’s strong economic condition. Because school construction historically has been a local responsibility, districts typically needed to persuade voters to support a bond issue to pay for upgrading facilities, and voters in many districts were receptive to sizable construction proposals.