With apologies to Charles Dickens, it is the best of times, it is the worst of times.
It is an age of unprecedented spending for school construction; it is an age of record budget deficits and cutbacks.
In countless communities across America, new school buildings have risen to replace outmoded facilities and accommodate a growing number of students. Yet, a faltering economy has put the squeeze on school operating budgets and has made voters less likely to support ambitious construction proposals. So, as their brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers did before them, children are falling behind because they come to learn each day in facilities that are cramped, outdated, inadequate and deteriorating.
The push for improving America's school facilities is more than just a question of aesthetics. Facilities that are inadequate, badly maintained or poorly designed can prevent students and teachers from performing to their capabilities, and in some cases can endanger their health and safety.
Studies have made the case that class size, school size, natural light, proper acoustics and good indoor air quality can affect students' ability to learn. So, to give students their best chance to succeed and to create the educated workforce that businesses will need to survive and prosper, it is imperative for the United States to have educational facilities that are healthy, safe and designed to create an environment most conducive to learning.
The burden of paying for school construction and renovation historically has fallen on local districts and their constituents. But with the needs so large and widespread, it is evident that local communities cannot carry the weight by themselves. Many states have stepped forward with additional aid for school facilities, and for a brief time, the federal government offered a funding program.
Many believe that it's time for the federal government to become involved again. A national survey of 1,005 registered voters conducted in January for the National Education Association by two pollsters — one Democratic and one Republican — found that by a ratio of 60 percent to 16 percent, voters would like to see the federal government take a greater role in providing money for school renovations.
Under President George W. Bush, the administration's “No Child Left Behind” education reform has involved the federal government in elementary and secondary education to an unprecedented degree. But “No Child Left Behind” does not include funding to help local school districts build or renovate facilities.
“The federal government should do more to assist local school districts in maintaining their facilities,” says the American Society of Civil Engineers' 2003 Progress Report on America's Infrastructure.