School Facilities at Crisis Level

Reflections from An Old School House

By Bob Peterson

Adequate lunchrooms and access to computers makes for improved learning.

As cold winds whistle through the window casings of my classroom my 5th graders demand that they be allowed to wear their jackets as we start afternoon activities. Easterly winter winds inevitably mean a drop in my room temperature despite high thermostat settings and lowered window shades. Maybe I am old-fashioned, but there is something about teaching kids who are wearing parkas that makes me feel we aren’t focused on learning.

Later that afternoon I work on report cards, trying to stay warm by using a space heater from home, carefully running a 50-foot extension cord across the room, fearful what affect the heater might have on an already overburdened power strip. I joke with the engineer that the real reason for global warming must be all the old schools that expend lots of energy heating up the outdoors.

The state of school facilities, however, is no joke. My school’s 93-year-old building is all too typical of substandard school facilities across the country, affecting millions of children.

An estimated one-third of our nation’s students go to schools that are substandard and unsafe, according to recent studies. A host of problems result: innovative teaching is difficult, the use of technology is problematic and in some facilities near impossible, and access for the physically disabled virtually impossible. No corporation or government agency catering to adults would tolerate such conditions.

“A glance at some school districts around the country illustrates the scope of the problem,” the New York Times reported last year. “Century-old school buildings are crumbling in New York City, while schools in New Orleans are being eaten away by termites. A ceiling in a Montgomery County, Ala., school recently collapsed, 40 minutes after children left for the day.

“In Chicago, there is not enough electrical power and outlets for computers, which remain in their packing boxes. And in suburban Philadelphia, some schools are so crowded that students are not allowed to carry backpacks to school because there is no room in the halls and lunch starts at 9:22 a.m. so that all students get a chance to eat.”


An estimated $112 billion is needed to bring existing school facilities up to minimal standards, according to a 1995 report by the General Accounting Office (GAO). This contrasts sharply to what is spent on school facilities. The federal government spends virtually nothing except on school buildings on military bases and Indian reservations. State governments spent less than $3.5 billion in 1994 and local governments spent $7.1 billion — less than 10% of the GAO’s estimate for meeting minimal standards.

The GAO based its report on a national sample survey of about 10,000 schools in over 5,000 districts, augmented by 41 site visits. The initial study, School Facilities: The Conditions of America’s Schools, dealt exclusively with the physical and environmental conditions at existing schools. Investigators found that 25,000 schools serving about 14 million students “have one or more entire buildings in less-than-adequate conditions, needing extensive repair or replacement.” The schools are distributed nationwide. The $112 billion estimate only deals with existing facilities and does not take into account expected enrollment increases. Nationwide, the number of elementary and secondary students is expected to grow from 47 million in 1991 to a record high of 56 million in 2004.


A second GAO report, School Facilities: America’s Schools Not Designed or Equipped for 21st Century focused on whether school facilities have the capacity to support education reform and improvement, including new technologies. The GAO found that “most schools do not fully use modern technology” principally due to a lack of building infrastructure. Other findings included “that about 40% of schools…cannot meet the functional requirements of laboratory science or large-group instruction even moderately well” and that over half the schools have “unsatisfactory flexibility of instructional space necessary to implement many effective teaching strategies.” In addition, nearly two-thirds of the schools cannot meet the functional requirements of key support services — such as private areas for counseling and testing, parent support activities, social/health care, and before-and after-school day care.

The GAO did not estimate costs to support learning needs for the 21st century — but they likewise run into the billions of dollars. Just to link all elementary and secondary schools to the Internet, for example, would cost about $37 billion, according to Thomas Boysen, former commissioner of education of Kentucky and now senior vice president of the Milken Family Foundation. To date, only about $5.4 billion has been spent on such Internet link-ups.

As I read through these reports I had two reactions. One was satisfaction. Here was clear documentation from respected sources confirming what I experience daily. Whether it’s the lack of electrical outlets or the lousy heating system, the lack of space for teaching the arts or the crowded lunch room and classrooms, I know that inadequate facilities are seriously limiting my students’ academic achievement. No thinking human being could look at these reports and deny that we have a crisis. (Charter schools also have found that inadequate facilities are a key problem. In a recent survey of 100 charter schools in seven states, facilities were ranked as one of the top three obstacles, along with start-up money and finances, according to the Education Commission of the States.)

My other reaction, however, was anger. How can such an affluent society allow such a travesty? Furthermore, those most affected by substandard facilities are, for the most part, poor and of color. As the GAO reported, “Overall, schools in central cities and schools with a 50% or more minority population were more likely to have more insufficient technology elements and a greater number of unsatisfactory environmental conditions.” The children attending run-down schools tend to suffer most from effects of their parents’ unemployment or low-wage jobs, discrimination, inadequate housing, and inadequate health care. Why doesn’t a nation nominally committed to “liberty and justice for all” recognize that low-income children often need more, not fewer, educational resources?


As we enter the 21st century, we need a new vision of school facilities. Schools should be constructed or renovated so they can serve the entire community — from the youngest toddlers to adults and the elderly — and offer a variety of recreational, cultural, and social services. Such schools would be open 16 hours a day, seven days a week, and could become social anchors for their neighborhoods. The possibilities are endless: quality child care, before- and after-school programs, neighborhood linkups to the World Wide Web, adult education classes, recreational and art programs, and social services.

The benefits could be startling. Youth would benefit from organized programs and gain a sense of purpose that would counter the influence of gangs. Social service agencies and schools could coordinate their services. Jobs would be provided for some, and job training could be available to many. Most important, a sense of community would be rekindled. Parents, sometimes hesitant to get involved in their children’s school, might feel more comfortable if they were already coming to the facility for other activities. Such inter-generational centers would have the side benefit of putting urban and rural schools on par with suburban schools by including modern libraries, art, music, and multi-purpose rooms.

Funding new facilities is only half the equation, of course, because programming in full-service schools would also cost money. Some funding could be found through collaboration with social welfare agencies, job training programs, postsecondary institutions, and hospitals, who would offer services at the schools. The bottom line, however, is that additional funds would have to be found, and not just from charities and foundations, but from a reallocation of government funds. The concept of schools as community centers is gaining acceptance, and “Lighted School Houses” or “Beacons” are currently operating in cities such as Flint, Mich., Philadelphia, and New York. In Milwaukee, elementary schools like Clark Street, Congress, Thoreau, Gaenslen, Pierce, and Fratney have taken steps to become Lighted School Houses.


Construction of school buildings has long been a local responsibility, normally requiring passage of local bond referenda. The GAO noted that the amount of the bonds usually is based on what is politically feasible, not what is needed for repairs and construction. In Pomona, Calif., for example, a $62.5 million bond issue was submitted to the voters after a survey indicated that the $200 million needed would be rejected. In Milwaukee, school officials decided that their original estimate of $1.2 billion for renovation and construction was politically unpalatable, and so reduced a 1993 bond referenda by two-thirds — and still lost.

Some communities with persistent school board members have refused to give up. They have gone back to voters a second or third time (often with lower requests) and often have been successful. In Milwaukee, increasing numbers of people are suggesting it is time for a second referendum.

In urban areas, the anti-tax sentiment that has doomed many school referenda is often wrapped up with issues of race. The voting population is often majority white, while those attending public schools are majority children of color. As one local official told me during the 1993 Milwaukee referendum, “My [white] constituency will vote against any money to public schools, because their perspective is that all public schools have ever done is bring Black kids into the neighborhood.” The official went on to say that many whites in his district send their kids to parochial or private schools and are more interested in seeing public tax dollars used to fund private schools.

In my research on school facilities, I discovered that no national organization or government agency tracks local school building referenda, and it is rare for such tracking even on a state level. State and federal officials apparently feel so little responsibility toward the quality of school facilities that they don’t even systematically assess the situation.

Overall, state support for school construction and renovation is weak. Only 13 states have comprehensive school facilities programs, and other than Alaska and Hawaii, no state spent more than $300 per pupil on facilities in 1994. Seventeen states, including Wisconsin, spent less than $100 per pupil. In fact, the GAO reports that Wisconsin was one of ten states that maintained “extremely limited or no information” on the condition of school facilities.

On the plus side, Alaska has led the way. Forced by a court suit and aided by significant oil revenue, the state financed a massive school building program in the 1980s which put a full-service high school in every community in the state, even in remote rural areas. Many of these schools have become vibrant community centers, the focal point of cultural, recreational, and educational activities for the community.

Funding initiatives at the federal level, meanwhile, have been a joke. The $100 million initially put into the fiscal 1995 budget at the insistence of Sen. Moseley Braun (D-Ill.) would only have been enough to build two or three full-service high schools. Even this small amount was cut and nothing is being considered for the 1996 budget.


On a strategic level, three thoughts come to mind. First, money for school facilities has to be tied to the broader question of our nation’s priorities. It is outrageous that Congress and the President agreed to a $264 billion annual defense budget — about $7 billion more than the Pentagon requested — while at the same time cutting money for social programs affecting children and families.

Second, the issue of must be linked to the call for full-service schools, rebuilding communities, equal access to technology, and providing job training for adults. If people see how such school facilities would help rebuild their community and serve even those without children, it will be more possible to build grass-roots support for school referenda. Finally, we need to get children and youth involved. Just as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. mobilized children while struggling in Birmingham, we need the voices and energies of students. Recently, one of my students, Naara Gutierrez, wrote to President Clinton: “I wish you would give more money to our school. When the wind blows I get cold and it’s hard to learn. I want to be warm in school. Please help.”

Whether the needs of our communities and the pleas of our children will be heard is uncertain. One thing I know, however. Until our nation gets its priorities straight, on cold, windy days my fifth-graders had better wear a couple extra sweatshirts.

Bob Peterson is a Rethinking Schools editor, and a 5th grade teacher at La Escuela Fratney in Milwaukee