Making Sound and Resourceful Investments to Improve School Facilities in Rural America
This piece is authored by Jalen Woodard, EducationCounsel’s 2022 summer intern. The views and recommendations stated above are his own.
The carpeted hallways in my high school stunk of mildew when it rained. Droplets from ceiling cracks dotted our desks and splattered our notebooks. A small bucket stood guard near the teacher’s desk under a gaping hole. It wasn’t until I began traveling to neighboring districts for quiz bowl competitions that I realized the dimly lit scene of my classroom stood in stark contrast to the clean, modern classrooms that our opponents may have taken for granted. I wondered: Why? Why were my classmates and I forced to learn in classrooms with moldy floors and leaky ceilings? And why was it taking so long for my school administrators to make the repairs?
I learned soon enough that the dysfunction and disrepair I experienced was not unique, but rather prevalent in public schools across the country, especially in low-income communities. According to an estimate last made in 2012, the average public school student attends a school built in 1968. The learning environments in these old buildings suffer from a wide variety of problems, such as poor air quality, extreme temperatures, and poor lighting. Others are forced to learn in dangerous proximity to asbestos, contaminated water, and mold. In the 21st Century School Fund’s 2021 State of Our Schools report researchers found that “20 to 35 percent of all school districts had serious deficiencies in at least half of their roofing, lighting or safety and security systems.” Furthermore, the American Society of Civil Engineers issued America’s public schools a D+ on their school infrastructure report card when they discovered that roughly 41 percent of schools have dysfunctional heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.
Source: 2021 State of Our Schools Report
Although the COVID-19 pandemic shed light on the urgent need for updated HVAC systems in under-resourced schools across the country to reduce the risk of COVID transmission, students attending high-poverty schools in rural America have endured poor air quality and much more for many years. The pandemic exacerbated the health risks their school buildings posed while spotlighting a major school funding shortfall: since the 2008 recession, state-level aid to improve facilities has declined by 41 percent. In the absence of state support, school districts are left on their own to make up the deficit, but predictably, districts serving high-poverty areas struggle to raise enough tax revenue to invest in capital improvements.
Raising adequate funding is especially challenging for school districts in rural areas. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics revealed that high-poverty rural districts invested the least in school facility improvements over the last decade, compared to urban and suburban districts. This can largely be attributed to the fact that high-poverty rural districts have smaller tax bases than urban and suburban districts. Rural districts also lack opportunities to partner with nonprofits and service agencies who have often helped fill the funding gaps left by state and federal governments in urban and suburban areas. Moreover, rural school districts serving mostly minority students can struggle to pass bond referenda that propose tax increases in counties where white families own much of the property but have largely exited the public school system.
These funding hardships result not only in crumbling facilities, but also in direct, detrimental effects on student attendance and learning outcomes. A 2012 research report on Miami-Dade public schools found that after controlling for students’ economic background and teacher experience, students learning in dilapidated facilities score “between 5 to 11 percentile points lower ” on standardized assessments than their counterparts learning in modern buildings. The same study discovered that students who learn in classrooms with more natural lighting scored better on standardized tests than students learning in classrooms that are dimly lit and windowless. Artificially lit classrooms with no windows, which were common in buildings constructed in the 1970s and 1980s, were also found to interfere with student hormones and elevate stress levels. Further, poor ventilation in schools exacerbates student asthma and other respiratory problems, which are leading causes of absenteeism. These environments undoubtedly shape students’ educational experience and influence their decision to drop out.
The adverse effects of substandard school buildings also extend to teachers and other school staff. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education found that demonstrably inadequate facilities often hinder teachers’ work. A teacher survey revealed that thirteen percent of teachers ranked facility issues first among several factors that leave them professionally dissatisfied. Another study examining teacher retention trends in Washington, D.C., concluded that poor facility quality is more influential on teacher retention than dissatisfaction with pay, suggesting that investing in school infrastructure can be a powerful strategy in retaining teachers. While it is only one piece of the teacher retention puzzle, updating facilities can alleviate the teacher shortages that thirty-nine percent of rural districts have experienced over the last decade. Filling vacancies is especially crucial in high poverty, rural districts, where student outcomes are notoriously below national standards.
Pandemic school closures have set students in these districts back even further, which means the stakes for updating school buildings are even higher. Federal, state, and local policymakers should recognize the seriousness and urgency of improving school facilities by developing short and long-term strategies to target funds to districts most in need. The following are policy and strategy recommendations stakeholders at all levels should employ:
Leveraging ESSER funds A FutureEd analysis recently found that facilities and operations were the third largest ESSER III spending category behind staffing and academic recovery. Collectively, districts nationwide have used approximately $15 billion for much-needed facility improvements, including upgrading HVAC systems, removing mold and mildew, replacing leaking roofs, and reducing lead levels. Under-resourced districts should continue to leverage these funds to address dire facility conditions that pose a threat to school health and safety. In addition, districts should be ready to take advantage of USED’s possible extension of the deadline by when to liquidate all ESSER dollars to execute construction plans.
Establishing long-term state and federal investments: Currently, the federal government only provides federal emergency management agency (FEMA) grants to schools affected by natural disasters. Moreover, only five states subsidize the majority of construction costs while twelve states do not provide any direct funding. Across the board, states have decreased capital funding by roughly 41% in the last decade while also maintaining strict regulations that hinder districts’ efforts to raise local tax revenue. Addressing the underinvestment in school facilities, especially in high-poverty districts, requires coordination between local, state and federal governments to 1) develop sustainable and cost-efficient construction and maintenance plans; 2) establish a nationwide database on school infrastructure quality; and 3) revise state and federal policies that restrict local districts’ ability to raise and use existing funding such as Title I for facility improvements.
Pursuing public-private partnerships: In 2019, Maryland was the first state to enlist an investment firm to finance the reconstruction of outdated school facilities in Prince George County. Although Prince George County is an urban district, states should emulate this partnership in rural communities, which not only improves aging school facilities but also can provide employment opportunities for local communities. In addition, states can serve as intermediaries that help connect underserved districts in their state to national and state-level nonprofit and philanthropic organizations.
Grounded in collaboration, resourcefulness, and experimentation, these recommendations are crucial to realizing greater school equity. My classmates and I did not deserve to learn in substandard facilities. Students today and in the future deserve better.