America's school facilities get a near-failing grade

Most parents aren't very happy when their children bring home a report card with anything less than a C-.

They'll be even less encouraged by the near-failing grade awarded to the nation's school facilities Thursday by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Close to a quarter of all public schools in America are in "fair or poor condition," according to the group's latest report card, which gave most of the nation's infrastructure a near-failing grade.

Much of the attention on infrastructure investment has been focused on transportation and public utilities like water systems and power grids. But the ASCE estimates that U.S. school facilities are second only to roads and highways in the overall funding gap required to bring them up to acceptable standards.

It would take some $380 billion over the next decade to overhaul the thousands of public schools where nearly 50 million K-12 students spend eight or more hours per day, five days out of the week, the report said.

Schools require more funding than airports, dams, rail and levees combined to get back to "good" condition, the engineers estimated.

The group assigned schools a D grade in 2017, down from a D+ in 2013.

Despite the scope of the funding gap, investing in educational infrastructure has received less attention from the Trump administration than other categories.

"The square footage of schools is about half of all commercial buildings in the U.S., on scale of the other infrastructure categories, or even more," Anisa Heming, director of the Center for Green Schools, said in an interview. "[Schools] represent the largest category of spending outside of transportation, but it's still not enough."

Heming and her team, along with the 21st Century School Fund, compiled a "State of our Schools" report in 2016, analyzing 20 years of school facility investments nationwide.

The report found that six states pay for nearly all of their own capital construction costs for schools, while 12 states provide no support to districts for construction responsibilities. In the 32 remaining states, the federal government contributes "almost nothing" to capital construction.

"The thing people misunderstand about infrastructure is it's not about 'the thing' itself," Mary Filardo of the 21st Century School Fund said in an interview.

Just like transportation is about building roads and bridges are about transferring people and encouraging mobility, education should be about building schools to transfer knowledge, she said.

Spending gaps per student, a key metric tracked in Heming and Filardo's report, have been increasing in many states over the years. These gaps include costs associated with maintenance and operation, and capital construction, as they would be needed depending on the number of children in a school district.

While there are no national standards for K-12 public school facilities conditions, communities use annual school district operating budgets, educational facilities master plans and capital budgets to determine what they need, the State of our Schools report explained. This information — though not uniform across states — allowed Heming and Filardo to compile per-student shortfalls.

States such as Vermont and New Hampshire see the biggest spending deficits required to meet educational standards, with gaps of more than $2,000 each, per student.

Schools under the Trump administration

Many advocates for education are concerned about President Donald Trump's understanding and concern on the infrastructure issue.

"Infrastructure is part of the public good — to make sure residents can thrive — and public schools are definitely something we need," Nikki Fortunato Bas of Partnership for Working Families said in an interview.

This includes tasks like modernizing educational resources in classrooms, making buildings more energy efficient and prioritizing public safety for students, she added.

Trump recently proposed a $1 trillion infrastructure investment, which would be financed through both public and private capital.

"Schools need to be 10 percent" of Trump's proposed $1 trillion budget, Filardo said. That funding could go a long way in places like low-income communities, rural towns, and with schools that are 100 or more years old, that don't have the ability to rebuild, she said.

"We need to reinvest in what's been an economic engine for many states, and it's an entirely appropriate thing for the federal government to take the initiative," she said.

Success stories

When communities come together, teamwork can go a long way.

States such as Ohio, New Mexico and Wyoming have stepped up and taken on more responsibilities to fund school facilities, putting in place new standards and making sure the locals are connecting with those at the federal level, Filardo said. "New Jersey was also one of the early ones that still struggles," but it set the path to infrastructure revival that many others have followed, she said.

While there's not a common thread in how each state has made improvements, they've each managed to come up with their own way to find school infrastructure funding — for example Ohio used money from tobacco and Wyoming used leftover dollars from coal lease bonuses.

"[These states] have all made it a priority and found some sort of revenue to dedicate" to infrastructure, Filardo said.

"State and local governments are plagued by a lack of comprehensive data on public school infrastructure as they seek to fund, plan, construct, and maintain quality school facilities," the American Society of Civil Engineers' latest report said, making it clear there is still a long way to go before America sees improvements across the board.

Bu the need is greater than ever, and the federal government has a greater role to play today than in the past, Center for Green Schools' Heming said.

The U.S. Department of Education issued a report in 1999, identifying an investment of $127 billion needed to bring the nation's schools into "good" operating condition. Today, school facilities experts estimate renovations and maintenance could top $270 billion.

"Why isn't this a national issue?" Heming asked.