Innovation in education

Disparities in Spending on U.S. Public School Facilities


By Jeff Vincent, Center for Cities & Schools, and Mary Filardo, BEST, United States

A new study, titled “Growth and Disparity: A Decade of U.S. Public School Construction”, investigates the scale, scope and distribution of school building investment across the United States. While the report illuminates the unprecedented spending and growth on U.S. public school construction over the last decade, it reveals that a tremendous disparity exists in who has benefited from the billions of public dollars invested.

The United States has long struggled to offer universal public education that would provide students a foundation to enter the workforce, continue their education if they desired and participate in civil society. An important condition of universal public education is that the quality of public schools should not vary as a function of race or economic status.

The physical condition of public school facilities was highlighted as a social justice issue in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education United States Supreme Court case, which challenged racial segregation in the public schools. Although the physical condition of school facilities can be a social justice concern, inadequate facilities has remained largely unrecognised as an education quality issue in local, state and federal education improvement efforts. The role public school quality – including building quality – plays in neighbourhood and community revitalisation is even less examined or understood.

The report was released by Building Educational Success Together (BEST), a national collaborative of organisations working in education reform and community development, and is available online:

The report finds that public school districts spent more than USD 304 billion (2005 dollars) on bricks and mortar "hard costs" for public school construction, funding more than 12 000 new schools and more than 130 000 improvement projects over the decade – an average of USD 6 519 per student. Many school districts and states are planning, designing, building and renovating some public school buildings of exceptional quality, and at the same time, working hard to bring existing schools up to code and into good repair.

However, despite record spending on school construction, students from low-income families and minority students have by far seen the least investment in their school buildings:

  • The poorest communities, as measured by household income, received the lowest investment (USD 4 140 per student) while the highest investment (USD 11 500 per student) was made in the wealthiest communities.
  • The least affluent school districts as measured by the percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced-priced lunch (F/RL) made the lowest investment (USD 4 800 per student), while the most affluent districts made the highest investment (USD 9 361 per student).
  • The money spent on schools serving students from low-income families was more likely to fund basic repairs, such as new roofs or asbestos removal, while schools in more affluent districts were more likely to receive funds for educational enhancements such as science laboratories or performing arts centres.
  • School districts with predominantly minority student enrolment invested the least (USD 5 172 per student), while school districts with predominantly white student enrolment spent the most (USD 7 102 per student).

Figure 1: Investment increases with family income
Source: BEST, 2006
F/RL = Free or reduced-price lunch.

While federal and state policies strive to set high academic standards for all children, the authors argue that the country has allowed a double standard to exist in the quality of children’s school buildings and has overlooked school building quality as an important factor affecting student performance. The report recommends a shift in federal and state policy, funding and accountability to support high quality school facilities.

For further information, contact:

Mary Filardo
21st Century School Fund/BEST
1816 12th Street NW
Thurgood Marshall Center
Washington, DC 20009
United States

Jeff Vincent
Center for Cities & Schools
Institute of Urban and Regional Development
University of California
316 Wurster Hall #1870
Berkeley, CA 94720-1870
United States


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