City and school officials in Baltimore were delighted earlier this month when the Maryland General Assembly approved a plan to spend about $1 billion to repair and modernize worn down school facilities in the city. Over 10 years, the money will enable the Baltimore City district to renovate or replace 45 to 55 buildings.

“Today is a great and historic day,” district CEO Andres Alonso said in a message to district staff when the legislation passed. “It is historic because lawmakers from around the state have come together in a shared commitment to the students of Baltimore City, and a shared acknowledgment of the tremendous need they face for better learning environments.”

But the sizable investment in better school facilities represents less than half of unmet facility needs in Baltimore. The district’s 10-year plan, detailed in a 220-page report, “21st-Century Buildings for Our Kids,” says Baltimore would need cost $2.452 billion to bring its public school buildings up to minimally acceptable standards.

The situation is one that plays out frequently in schools and universities throughout the nation. Education institutions are grateful for whatever funding they can acquire to repair aging and outdated facilities, but the money they receive typically falls short of what is needed to provide students with adequate learning environments. Less critical maintenance tasks are set aside, and the list of deferred maintenance projects grows while schools wait for additional funds that never materialize. 

By the numbers

How large a number must be attached to the problem of deferred maintenance in U.S. school facilities to persuade decisionmakers to give high priority to the state of educational facilities? Over more than 20 years, different organizations, public and private, have looked at the deficiencies in school infrastructure and have come up with a wide range of estimates of how much it would cost to bring education facilities into good condition.

Although the numbers vary, the findings had this in common: The money that was being allocated to address the problem was inadequate, and the problem would become only worse as buildings continued to wear out and break down.

Among the reports calling attention to deferred maintenance in schools:

•In 1989, the Education Writers Association released a report, “Wolves at the Schoolhouse Door,” that stated that public schools needed $41 billion to address facility maintenance and repairs.

•A 1992 report on the state of school facilities by the American Association of School Administrators, “Schoolhouse in the Red,” estimated that public school systems had more than $100 million in deferred maintenance projects.

•In 1995, the GAO (then the General Accounting Office, now renamed the Government Accountability Office) estimated that K-12 school facilities would need $112 billion to correct substandard conditions and carry out major repairs of problems such as leaking roofs, plumbing problems, inadequate heating systems or other system failures.

•The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics released a follow-up report in 2000, “Condition of America’s Public School Facilities: 1999,” to determine what repairs, renovations and modernizations were needed to bring the nation’s public school buildings into good overall condition. It upped the estimate to $127 billion.

•The National Education Association also issued a report on school facilities in 2000, “Modernizing Our Schools: What Will It Cost?” The teachers union estimated the nationwide cost of repairing, renovating, or building school facilities and installing modern educational technology at $322 billion.

•In 2009, the 21st Century School Fund, an organization that advocates for modernizing education facilities, issued a report, “Repair for Success: An Analysis of the Need and Possibilities for a Federal Investment in PK-12 School Maintenance and Repair.” Using “a conservative estimate and extremely modest standards,” the report determined that U.S. public school facilities had $271 million in deferred maintenance.

•In 2011, the Council of the Great City Schools surveyed 50 major urban school districts that had 5.3 million students in 8,561 schools. The districts reported having $46.7 billion in repair, renovation, and modernization needs; and $14.4 billion in deferred maintenance needs.

•Now in 2013, the U.S. Green Building Council’s Center for Green Schools has issued a report, “State of Our Schools 2013,” that takes the 21st Century School Fund’s $271 million estimate and adds to it modernization costs that would enable U.S. schools to meet current education, safety and health standards. The grand total: $542 billion.

“If schools were to be modernized on a 25-year lifecycle—a defensible schedule, given rapid changes in building technology, educational demands and population change—$542 billion would be required over the next 10 years to modernize our pre-K-through-12th grade educational infrastructure,” the report asserts.