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How Old are America's Public Schools?
NCES: 1999048
January 1999

Overview

The condition of America's public school facilities is an issue of great concern to educators and administrators (Honeyman, 1994; Kowalski, 1995). In 1989, the Education Writers Association reported that nearly half of the public school buildings in America were obsolete and contained environmental hazards (Lewis, 1989). The state of America's school facilities continues to be a problem today. In his 1997 State of the Union Address, President Clinton remarked, "We cannot expect our children to raise themselves up in schools that are literally falling down. With the student population at an all time high, and record numbers of school buildings falling into disrepair, this has now become a serious national concern" (Clinton, 1997).

How old are America's public schools? How recently have public schools been renovated? Data available from the Fast Response Survey System (FRSS), conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), can be used to help answer these questions. In 1994, 1995, and 1996, FRSS queried U. S. public school administrators about the age of their school buildings and the date of the building's last renovation. The combined data from these 3 years make it possible to help determine the average age of public schools, where the older and newer public schools are located, and whether school age is related to other school characteristics. Data from 1995 provide information on school renovation and Internet accessibility.

The increase in the construction of schools between 1950 and 1969 corresponds to the years during which the Baby Boom generation was going to school.

In 1998, the average public school building in the United States was 42 years old. The mean age ranged from 46 years in the Northeast and Central states to 37 years in the Southeast (table 1). On average, schools located in the Northeast and Central regions of the country were older than those located in the Southeast and the West. Many of America's schools may be at an age where frequent repairs are necessary. According to Ornstein (1994), when a school is 20 to 30 years old, frequent replacement of equipment is needed. Between 30 and 40 years old, the original equipment should have been replaced, including the roof and electrical equipment. After 40 years, a school building begins rapid deterioration, and after 60 years most schools are abandoned.

About one-fourth (28 percent) of all public schools were built before 1950, and 45 percent of all public schools were built between 1950 and 1969 (table 1).Seventeen percent of public schools were built between 1970 and 1984, and 10 percent were built after 1985. The increase in the construction of schools between 1950 and 1969 corresponds to the years during which the Baby Boom generation was going to school.

America's oldest schools have a higher proportion of children in poverty (table 1). Of schools with less than 20 percent of children eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch, 20 percent were built before 1950. In contrast, of schools with 20 to 49 percent and 50 percent or more children eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch, 29 percent and 34 percent were built before 1950. The age of a school and its size are also related. While 40 percent of small schools (enrollments of less than 300) were built before 1950, 23 percent of large schools (enrollments of 1,000 or more) were built before 1950.

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