Design and Construction, Heating and Cooling, Maintenance and Operations

Report: U.S. Public School Facilities Face ‘Staggering’ Annual Funding Gap

The United States faces a projected shortfall of a staggering $85 billion in public school facility funding every year, according to a recent report.

The report, 2021 State of Our Schools Report: America’s PK-12 Public School Facilities, was released by the 21st Century School Fund, the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), and the National Council on School Facilities. In addition to showing massive underinvestment in education facilities, the report also identifies solutions to achieve healthier, more sustainable elementary and secondary schools.

The report says U.S. districts are spending about $110 billion every year on maintenance, operations, and capital construction—but the educational facilities standards for good stewardship necessitates nearly $195 billion. The rise in the nation’s PK-12 gap has been brought on by increased school construction costs, building inventory increases, and a sharp decline in facility expenditures after the great recession.

All this despite extraordinary efforts on the part of local communities and states to deliver public school buildings that help protect the health and safety of the students, teachers, and staff who walk through their doors every day, according to the report.

“In our last report in 2016, we saw an annual gap of $46 billion in school facilities funding—$60 billion in today’s construction dollars,” says Mary Filardo, executive director of 21st Century School Fund and lead author of the report. “Unfortunately, while local districts are struggling with making facilities safe in a pandemic, they are faced with longstanding deficiencies in their aging infrastructure, which makes this very difficult.”

In the United States, PK-12 school facilities are the second-largest sector of public infrastructure spending behind only highways. However, the report says unlike transportation infrastructure, which has most of its capital costs paid from federal and state sources, in most states local school districts individually bear the heaviest responsibilities for school construction capital funding.

Nationally, the report finds local districts cover 77% of school facility costs, with only 22% coming from states. Schools received slightly more than 1% from federal funds ($7.1 billion) for school construction between 2009 and 2019. One-third of these federal funds came from FEMA to aid schools after natural disasters.

The report claims the U.S. system for funding capital construction projects for public school facilities is no longer sustainable.

“While states and the federal government contribute roughly 45% and 10%, respectively, to school districts’ annual operating costs, the capital investment required to build and modernize buildings falls most heavily on local districts and taxpayers,” says Rachel Hodgdon, president and CEO of IWBI. “If the financial resources in the community aren’t there, new construction rarely gets funded. Where our children learn matters, and access to safe, healthy, and equitable learning environments should be a right, not a privilege.”

The report charges that the data shows the system is broken and has been for decades. Local districts held nearly half-a-trillion dollars in long-term debt at the end of fiscal year 2019. This represents a national average of slightly more than $11,000 per student. The poorest districts, particularly small and rural ones, cannot even afford to borrow capital to address their aging facilities, the report adds.

The $85 Billion Gap

Across the nation, local school districts work hard to deliver healthy and safe public school facilities that offer suitable learning environments. They support ongoing operations and maintenance in annual operating budgets and invest in buildings and grounds construction and improvements in capital budgets. But the report says the shortfall increases in both budgets every year, leaving school districts unprepared to provide adequate and equitable school facilities.

According to the report, the $85 billion gap between what is needed for good stewardship and what districts and states have done occurs both in capital outlays and operations and maintenance.

  • Annually, U.S. public school districts spent an average of $54.1 billion on capital improvements from fiscal year 2009 to 2019 (in 2020 dollars), leaving a capital investment gap of $57.4 billion.
  • Annually, the United States spent an average of $56 billion on facilities operations and maintenance, leaving a maintenance and operations gap of $27.6 billion.

“Closing these annual funding gaps must be a top priority. We have Title 1 for the classroom. We need a Title 1 for school facilities as well. This will ensure that all public schools meet modern standards for health, safety, learning, and environmental sustainability and resiliency,” says Juan Mireles, president of the National Council on School Facilities and director of facilities and transportation services at the California Department of Education.

“Too many of our schools are just old and worn out, with inadequate ventilation for clean air, which is a must during this pandemic,” continues Mireles. “The recent 2020 GAO study on the condition of our nation’s public schools found that thousands of school districts have at least half of their schools in need of updates or replacements of key building systems or features.”

Inequity

When comparing the funding for school districts across socioeconomic, race, ethnicity, and location, the report says the disparities were profound. On average, school districts with high levels of economically disadvantaged students spent less per school than well-off suburban communities.

These structural inequities are also found in and often compounded by racial and ethnic composition and the locations of the districts. The report finds rural districts serving high-poverty public school communities have funded capital improvements at almost half the level of the national average—$2.3 million on average per school compared to $4.3 million per school.

“This is another area where those who have the least suffer the most,” says Hodgdon. “Schools that are in a state of disrepair—suffering from poor indoor air quality due to lack of ventilation and proper filtration and compromised water quality—are often in the most disadvantaged communities. These schools weren’t sufficient before the pandemic; today, in many cases, they are just plain dangerous.”

The Health, Performance, and Economic Impact

With more than one-sixth of the entire U.S. population inside PK–12 public school buildings each weekday, modernizing and replacing old public schools can have a major impact on the health and performance of both students and staff, according to the report. The report says these efforts can also enable communities to conserve land, energy, and water; reduce carbon emissions; and in the face of climate change, protect lives and reduce the level of relief funding needed following disasters.

“This report shines a light on long-standing deficiencies and needs for air quality and safety upgrades in many of our schools, and also the opportunity that with the right strategies, sound public policy, and federal investment, a healthier and safer indoor environment can be achieved,” comments Greg Alcorn, VP of Healthy Buildings at Carrier, a platinum sponsor of the report.

Looking to the Future

The report finds that if school districts across the nation dedicated 15% of their recent Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to addressing the crisis of school facilities conditions in low-wealth and high-need communities, they would have about $30 billion over the next three years to reduce deferred maintenance and make their schools healthier and safer.

According to the report, Congress is currently considering additional funding to address long-standing facilities deficiencies. If there were $130 billion of federal funding dedicated to rebuilding America’s schools, it could close the capital investment gap by about 22% over 10 years. The report argues federal funding is the only way many low-wealth and high-need districts will be able to bring their PK-12 schools into the 21st century.

“The status quo is unsustainable. This report provides Congress and state leaders with a roadmap to address these daunting challenges to rebuild our nation’s schools for communities and families today and for generations to come,” says Filardo.

In support of the launch of the 2021 State of our Schools Report, more than 30 nonprofit organizations, education associations, and businesses have joined in to help make the data in the report widely available. To dive deeper into the data cited here, as well as to find more detail about the conditions of schools in each state, visit stateofourschools2021.org.