The progress made in the last 20 years upgrading school buildings is undeniable, but it’s equally clear that the billions of dollars spent haven’t been nearly enough to eliminate inadequate education facilities.
The American Society of Civil Engineers in 2009 awarded a grade of "D" to the nation’s public school infrastructure because of the inability of education institutions to keep up with the demand for facilities improvement.
In addition, an examination of which districts were carrying out building upgrades in the 1990s and 2000s indicates that affluent areas were more likely to be the beneficiaries of increased spending.
A coalition of groups advocating for better school facilities, Building Educational Success Together (BEST), looked at the issue in a 2006 report, "Growth and Disparity: A Decade of U.S. Public School Construction 1995-2004."
"Overall, the schools in poor condition 10 years ago received the least investment in their facilities, even as the nation’s schools have seen record spending in school facilities," the BEST report says. "...Although the plight of students in the country’s most decrepit school buildings has not been entirely ignored, federal and state policies to address the problems have been inadequate. The scale, scope and distribution of school construction spending need to be better understood and monitored."
That report came before the economic collapse of 2008 led to devastating budget cuts for education institutions.
The Council of the Great City Schools, which has 65 large urban districts as members, estimated in October 2011 that those 65 school systems have a total of $100.5 billion in facility needs—$20.1 billion in new construction, $61.4 billion in repair, renovation, and modernization, and $19.0 billion in deferred maintenance.
An earlier report for the American Federation of Teachers provided a nationwide needs estimate. The December 2008 "Building Minds, Minding Buildings" report on school infrastructure funding needs in each of the 50 states estimated that $254.6 billion was needed to ensure that all students were taught in a space that was "safe, healthy and educationally appropriate." The needs ranged from $325.7 million in Vermont to $25.4 billion in California.
The researchers compiled a similar analysis in 2001 that estimated nationwide school facility needs at $266 billion. The lower number in the more recent study provides evidence that some progress has been made—estimated needs in New York, for instance, dropped from $47.6 billion to $21.2 billion, and in Ohio, where the state began a program to assist local districts with school construction, facility needs declined from $20.9 billion to $9.3 billion.
But the overall picture, the report concludes, is that "there still exists an enormous and disturbing school infrastructure funding need in almost every state and across the country."
The study calls for more federal involvement in school facility funding.
"The nature and scope of school infrastructure funding need calls for a new federal/state/local partnership with the federal government assuming a strong leadership role," says the AFT report.