The State of Our Schools

Posted by Content Coordinator on Wednesday, March 30th, 2016



In 1995 the U.S. Government Accounting Office published School Facilities: Condition of America’s Schools — the last truly comprehensive federal review of our nation’s school infrastructure. The report found that half of all schools had problems linked to indoor air quality and an unacceptable 15,000 schools were circulating air deemed unfit to breathe. In the 20 years since the release of this report, states and districts have invested nearly $2 trillion in school infrastructure, but the critical question remains: where do we stand today on our commitment to provide all students a quality education in a healthy and safe environment? At its heart, school facility quality is a matter of equity, and responsible planning for the future requires that we have better information about the condition of our nation’s schools.

School facilities represent the second largest sector of public infrastructure spending, after highways, and yet we have no comprehensive national data source on K–12 public school infrastructure. Even at the state level, school facilities information is often scant. The dearth of official data and standards for our nation’s public school infrastructure has left communities and states working largely on their own to plan for and provide high-quality facilities.

These realities inspired our three organizations to assemble the best available state-by-state data and propose a standards-based framework by which we can benchmark the nation’s investment. We set out to create a common fact base to understand three critical points:

  • the scale of elementary and secondary public school infrastructure;
  • the significant effort that communities are making to provide safe, healthy, and adequate public school facilities; and
  • the future investment needed to ensure adequate and equitable public school facilities for all students, including those in low-wealth communities.

A 2015 national independent poll commissioned by the U.S. Green Building Council found that 92 percent of Americans believe that the quality of public school buildings should be improved. As a nation, we have the will, but we must find the way. We invite problem-solvers from communities, government, industry and academia to use the framework and data in this report to develop creative solutions for improving our K–12 infrastructure. Together, let us secure new revenue streams and leverage public and private resources to provide the best educational opportunities for our nation’s students — all of them.

Executive Summary

A large and growing body of evidence demonstrates that school facilities have a direct impact on student learning, student and staff health, and school finances. But too many students attend school facilities that fall short of providing 21st century learning environments because essential maintenance and capital improvements are underfunded. This report compiles and analyzes the best available school district data about U.S. K–12 public school facilities funding into a national and state-level summary. In addition, 50 individual state profiles are available at Together, these documents create a common fact base from which to address three key questions:

  • Do states and districts have adequate operating funds for cleaning, maintenance, and repairs to ensure buildings and grounds are healthy and safe?
  • Are districts and states investing the capital funds necessary to ensure that their public schools are educationally appropriate, energy efficient, and environmentally responsible?
  • Are states and the federal government doing enough to ensure equity in education, so that all students have access to healthy and safe school facilities that support learning?

K–12 School Facilities Matter

The scale of U.S. public K–12 school facilities is staggering: every school day, nearly 50 million students and 6 million adults are in close to 100,000 buildings, encompassing an estimated 7.5 billion gross square feet and 2 million acres of land. In fact, state and local governments invest more capital in K–12 public school facilities than in any other infrastructure sector outside of highways. Research shows that high-quality facilities help improve student achievement, reduce truancy and suspensions, improve staff satisfaction and retention, and raise property values. They also are integral to ensuring equity in educational offerings and opportunities for students. Even so, no comprehensive information about school building conditions or funding is available at the national level, nor in the majority of states, despite the importance of this infrastructure and the enormous investments made by U.S. taxpayers.

K–12 Facilities Spending & Investments Averaged $99 Billion Per Year

School districts worked hard from 1994 through 2013 to operate, maintain, modernize, and meet the enrollment growth of the nation’s K–12 public schools. In the span of these 20 years, school facilities changed more rapidly than at any time in recent memory, fueled by improved health and safety standards, stronger accessibility requirements, increased use of technology, and expanded programming within schools. Nationally, states and districts spent a total of $925 billion in 2014 dollars on maintenance and operations (M&O): daily cleaning, grounds keeping, maintenance, utilities, and security of facilities. This amount equaled an annual average of nearly $46 billion per year for M&O over these 20 years. From 2011–2013, spending increased to an average of $50 billion a year.

In addition to M&O spending, states and districts invested $973 billion in 2014 dollars (an average of $49 billion per year), from their capital budgets for new school construction and capital projects to improve existing schools. Over the past three years (2011-13), the combined spending and investment totaled nearly $99 billion per year.

Capital Investment Impacted Communities Inequitably

The structure of K–12 school facilities funding in the U.S. is inherently and persistently inequitable. States and the federal government contribute funds towards school districts’ annual operating costs, paying — on average — 45 percent and 10 percent, respectively. Facilities M&O, as part of the operating budget, benefits from state and federal assistance. However, in making the capital investments needed to build and improve school facilities, local school districts bear the heaviest burden. This is the case despite communities’ widely disparate levels of wealth and capacity to finance all that their schools need. While five states pay for nearly all their districts’ capital costs, 12 states provide no direct support to districts for capital construction responsibilities. In the remaining 33 states, the levels of state support vary greatly. The federal government contributes almost nothing to capital construction to help alleviate disparities.

$145 Billion Per Year Needed for 21st Century Facilities for All Children

Using industry standards adapted to K–12 public school facilities, we estimate that the nation should be spending about $145 billion per year to maintain, operate, and renew facilities so that they provide healthy and safe 21st century learning environments for all children. Applying a 3 percent of current replacement value (CRV) standard for M&O, districts need to spend $58 billion annually to maintain and operate the 2014 inventory of public school facilities so they are clean and in good working order. On the capital side, the nation should be spending an estimated $77 billion per year (4 percent of CRV) to regularly upgrade existing facilities’ systems, components, fixtures, equipment, and finishes as they reach the end of their anticipated life expectancy; systematically reduce the backlog of deferred maintenance that has accumulated; and alter existing facilities to respond to changing educational requirements. In addition, projections suggest at least another $10 billion per year is needed for new construction to accommodate growing enrollments over the coming decade. That brings the total annual facilities requirements to $145 billion per year.

The Nation Underinvests in Public School Facilities

$46 Billion Per Year Gap in K–12 Facilities Spending & Investment

The nation’s current system of facilities funding leaves school districts unprepared to provide adequate and equitable school facilities. Comparing historic spending against building industry and best-practice standards for responsible facilities stewardship, we estimate that national spending falls short by about $8 billion for M&O and $38 billion for capital construction. In total, the nation is underspending on school facilities by $46 billion — an annual shortfall of 32 percent. Gaps vary by state and local district, depending on investments by local communities and the structure of school facilities funding at the state level. Nevertheless, investment levels in all states but three will not meet the standards.

A Call to Action

The American public supports high-quality school facilities. When communities have the means to build and maintain high-quality facilities, they do. This report identifies four key strategies for addressing the structural deficits in the K–12 public education infrastructure. First, understand current facilities conditions. Second, engage communities in planning for adequate and equitable 21st century facilities. Third, find and pilot new innovative sources of public funding. Finally, leverage public and private resources in new ways to assist states and districts in providing healthy, safe, educationally appropriate, and environmentally responsible facilities for their communities.

Download full version (PDF): The State of Our Schools 2016

About the 21st Century School Fund
The 21st Century School Fund (21CSF) was founded in 1994 on the premise that communities are responsible for creating healthy, safe, and educationally appropriate learning environments…21CSF is dedicated to building the public will and capacity to modernize public school facilities so they support high quality education and community revitalization.

About the National Council on School Facilities
The mission of the National Council on School Facilities is to support states in their varied roles and responsibilities for the delivery of safe, healthy, and educationally appropriate public school facilities that are sustainable and fiscally sound.

About the Center for Green Schools
“Our mission is to create green schools for everyone within this generation, and as such the Center works directly with teachers, students, administrators, elected officials and communities to create programs, resources and partnerships that transform all schools into healthy learning environments. High-performing schools result in high-performing students, and green schools go far beyond bricks and mortar. We see an opportunity to educate a new generation of leaders, including sustainability natives, capable of driving global market transformation. We hope you will join us.”

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