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Condition of America's Public School Facilities: 1999
NCES: 2000032
June 2000

Summary and Conclusions

The physical condition of schools has been receiving a great deal of attention as press reports indicate crumbling buildings and other signs of deterioration, and concerns mount that the babyboom echo is causing schools to be overcrowded (e.g., Kozol 1991; U.S. Department of Education 1998). Beyond the general condition of schools are concerns about the adequacy of many environmental factors, including air conditioning and ventilation, noise control, and flexibility of instructional space (e.g., Hansen 1992). Despite the widespread interest in the state of public school facilities, recent nationally representative data regarding the physical condition of schools are scarce. The need for current national data is underscored by observations that the condition of schools varies widely. Some districts have schools deteriorating with age and lack of maintenance, while other districts invest millions of dollars in new, state-of-the-art buildings; the condition of schools within districts may also vary widely. The presence of such extremes highlights the importance of describing the range of physical conditions in America's public school facilities.

This report provides data regarding a broad range of issues concerning school condition. The results presented in this report are based on questionnaire data for 903 public elementary and secondary schools in the United States. The questionnaire responses were weighted to produce national estimates that represent all regular public schools in the United States.

Information about the condition of school facilities is based on questionnaire rating scales rather than on physical observation of school conditions by outside observers. Data were collected regarding the adequacy of permanent and temporary school facilities, adequacy of building features that make up schools, and satisfaction with environmental factors, including specific attention to air conditioning. Data were also collected to provide estimates of the total investment in repairs, renovations, and modernizations that would be necessary to bring all public schools into good overall condition.

The survey also gathered data pertaining to future plans for construction, repair/renovation, and replacement. Information was also collected about the age of public schools, and about overcrowding at public schools. All comparative statements in this report have been tested for statistical significance and adjusted for multiple comparisons using the Bonferroni adjustment and are significant at the 0.05 level. Throughout this report, differences that may appear large (particularly those by school characteristics) may not be statistically significant. This is due in part to the relatively large standard errors surrounding the estimates (because of the small sample size) and the use of the Bonferroni adjustment. This chapter provides a summary of the findings from this survey, as well as some overall conclusions.

The Overall Condition of Schools and Building Features

Overall, about three-quarters of schools, serving approximately 34 million students, reported that all the types of onsite buildings at their school were in adequate or better condition. However, about one-quarter of schools, enrolling approximately 11 million students, reported at least one of their types of onsite buildings to be in less than adequate condition. Approximately 3.5 million of these students attended schools where at least one type of building was in poor condition or needed to be replaced. The variability in overall condition of schools was not strongly related to characteristics of the school.

While the majority of schools reported being adequate or better overall, it is possible that the condition of important individual building features, such as roofs or electrical systems, may be less than adequate, regardless of the general condition of the school. Overall, 50 percent of schools reported that at least one of nine building features at their school was in less than adequate condition. Schools reporting any less than adequate feature reported an average of 3.8 building features to be in less than adequate condition. The percent of schools with at least one less than adequate building feature varied by locale, region, and the concentration of poverty in the school (defined as the percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch). Schools located in central cities were more likely than those in urban fringe areas or large towns to report at least one building feature as less than adequate, as were schools in the West compared with those in the Northeast. Schools with the highest concentration of poverty were more likely than were schools with the two lowest concentrations of poverty to report that at least one building features was less than adequate.

When considering individual building features, ratings of less than adequate ranged from 14 percent of schools for framing, floors, and foundations to 29 percent of schools for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning. The condition of specific building features varied somewhat by school characteristics, although the only consistent pattern was for schools in the West to be more likely than schools in the Northeast to report less than adequate conditions on four of the nine building features.

The Cost of Bringing Schools Into Good Overall Condition

Schools that reported on the questionnaire that the condition of any type of building or any building feature was in less than good condition (i.e., was given a rating of adequate, fair, poor, or replace) provided information about the expected cost of the needed repairs, renovations, and modernizations to put the school's onsite buildings into good overall condition. About three-quarters of schools, representing a total of about 59,400 schools, indicated that they needed to spend some money on repairs, renovations, and modernizations to put the school into good overall condition. The total amount needed by schools was estimated to be approximately $127 billion, with an average dollar amount per school of about $2.2 million for schools needing to spend. The average cost per student across all public schools was $2,900 (including schools that reported no need to spend money), and $3,800 among the 76 percent of schools that reported needing to spend money to put the school into good overall condition. Cost per student did not vary by school characteristics.

Satisfaction with Environmental Conditions in Schools

While assessing the overall condition of school buildings and their features provides insight into the physical condition of schools in terms of bricks and mortar, environmental conditions tend to be associated with comfort within the space provided by the physical features. While a majority of public schools reported that each of six environmental conditions within the school were satisfactory, a sizable minority reported that these environmental conditions were unsatisfactory.

About a quarter of schools reported ventilation as unsatisfactory, about a fifth of schools reported they were unsatisfied with heating, indoor air quality, acoustics or noise control, and the physical security of buildings, and 12 percent of schools were unsatisfied with lighting conditions. In addition to these six environmental conditions, about a third of schools were unsatisfied with the energy efficiency of the school, and 38 percent were unsatisfied with their flexibility of instructional space. There were no consistent patterns of variation by school characteristics in satisfaction with individual environmental conditions.

Overall, the 43 percent of the schools indicating that at least one of the six environmental factors was in unsatisfactory condition reported an average of 2.6 environmental conditions to be unsatisfactory. The percent of schools reporting at least one unsatisfactory environmental condition varied by locale and concentration of poverty. Schools in rural areas and small towns were more likely than those in urban fringe areas and large towns to report at least one unsatisfactory environmental condition. Schools with the highest concentration of poverty were more likely than those with the lowest concentration of poverty to report at least one unsatisfactory environmental condition.

One environmental factor, air conditioning, is of particular concern, especially in classrooms. While about half of schools indicated that all of their classrooms were air-conditioned, about a quarter of schools reported that none of their classrooms were air-conditioned, but they needed to be. About 60 percent of schools reported that all of their administrative offices, computer labs, and media centers were air-conditioned. About 85 percent of the schools reported that air conditioning, in areas of the school that had it, was satisfactory or very satisfactory.

Plans for Construction, and for Major Repair, Renovation, or Replacement of Building Features

The physical condition of schools is constantly changing: age and use wear them down, maintenance (repair and renovation) and replacement build them back. The majority of schools (about two-thirds) plan for this inevitability with written long-range facilities plans. Regardless of whether the activity was part of a written plan, one-fifth of schools reported plans to build new attached and/or detached permanent additions, and 1 in 10 reported plans to install new temporary buildings within the next 2 years.

About half of the schools planned to make major repairs, renovations, or replacements to at least one building feature in the next 2 years. Overall, 41 percent of schools indicated plans to make major repairs or renovations to at least one building feature, and one-quarter planned to replace at least one building feature in the next 2 years. While plans for repair or renovation in the next 2 years varied by locale and percent minority enrollment, plans for replacing building features did not vary by school characteristics. The more salient factor than school characteristics for future repair, renovation, and replacement was the overall condition of the school buildings or building feature. About half (46 percent) of the schools in adequate or better overall condition reported plans for repair, renovation, or replacement of building features in the next 2 years, compared with two-thirds of schools in less than adequate overall condition. The remaining one-third of schools in less than adequate condition, about 6,300 schools, had no plans for improvements to the features of their buildings. This group of schools may continue to gradually deteriorate over time due to deferred maintenance.

Functional Age of Schools

The physical condition of schools is linked in many people's minds with the age of the school. Concerns that older schools are in more disrepair, lack the necessary infrastructure for advanced telecommunications systems, have inefficient mechanical systems, and may lack modern safety features have raised concern about the age of America's schools. In 1999, public schools in America were built, on average, 40 years ago.

Among schools that had been renovated since construction, on average the renovation occurred 11 years ago. The years since construction and since the most recent major renovation were combined to form a measure of the functional age of the school. The functional age was calculated as the years since construction for schools with no major renovations, or the years since the most recent major renovation for school that had completed such projects. The average functional age of schools was 16 years. Overall, about one third of public schools had a functional age of less than 5 years, 28 percent had a functional age of 5 to 14 years, 26 percent had a functional age of 15 to 34 years, and 14 percent had a functional age of 35 years or more. Thus, about 6 out of 10 schools had a functional age of less than 15 years. The data suggest that school functional age is related to condition in several ways, with the oldest schools more likely to be in poor condition.

Older schools (those with functional ages of 15 years or more) were more likely than younger schools (those with functional ages less than 15 years) to report that at least one type of onsite building was in less than adequate condition, to report at least one building feature to be less than adequate, and to report at least one unsatisfactory environmental condition.

School plans for making major repairs, renovations, or replacements in the next 2 years varied by the functional age of the school. Schools with functional ages between 15 to 34 years were more likely to report plans for at least one major repair, renovation, or replacement than were schools with younger functional ages. Schools with the oldest functional age (35 years or greater) were as likely to have plans for repair, renovation, or replacement as were the schools with younger functional ages. Thus, even many of the functionally youngest schools were slated for such maintenance work. Many older schools are slated for what are likely necessary improvements, but many are not slated for work that may be overdue. It is possible that this latter group may fall into a category of schools that have been relinquished to the inevitable effects of aging, possibly with the intent of completely replacing the school in the future.

Overcrowding in Schools

As the public school system copes with the babyboom echo, there is growing concern about the degree of overcrowding existing in at least some schools. This concern is compounded by research on the effects of overcrowding on teacher and student behaviors (e.g., Rivera-Batiz and Marti 1995). Overcrowding occurs when the number of students enrolled in the school is larger than the number of students the school is designed to accommodate. Overall, about half of public schools were underenrolled (approximately 40,500 schools nationwide), about one-quarter were within 5 percent of their capacity (approximately 20,400 schools), and about a quarter were overcrowded (about 17,400 schools), based on the capacity of the permanent instructional buildings and space. The extent of overcrowding varied based upon school instructional level, school size, region, locale, and percent minority enrollment, but did not vary significantly based upon concentration of poverty in the school. Schools in rural areas or small towns were more likely than schools in other areas to be severely underenrolled (underenrolled by more than 25 percent). In addition, the likelihood of being severely underenrolled decreased with the school's enrollment size.

Severe overcrowding (enrollments greater than capacity by more than 25 percent) was generally most prevalent among large schools, schools in the West, and schools with more than 50 percent minority enrollment. Overcrowded schools were more likely than other schools to report that at least one type of onsite building was in less than adequate condition, to have at least one building feature in less than adequate condition, and to have at least one environmental factor in unsatisfactory condition.

Schools have a number of strategies to help cope with overcrowding. About a third (36 percent) of schools indicated that they used portable classrooms, and one out of five indicated the use of temporary instructional space, with most reporting using these strategies to a moderate or great extent to alleviate overcrowding. About three-quarters of schools reported using staggered lunch schedules, with 45 percent of them reporting doing so to ease overcrowding to a great extent. However, this may reflect the need for cafeteria space, rather than instructional space, to accommodate student enrollments.

School Facilities and Characteristics of Schools

Several school characteristics of interest for policy development did appear to be related to some of the elements of condition. Specifically, school locale (central city, urban fringe/large town, or rural/small town), concentration of poverty in the school (measured by the percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch), percent minority enrollment, and school size each appear to be related to school conditions in some way, although strong and consistent patterns of variation across many school conditions did not emerge in this study. Additionally, geographic region was related to some aspects of school condition. These are discussed more fully below.

When differences between schools' condition emerged based upon school locale, they sometimes supported the popular perception that schools located in central cities are in worse condition than are schools elsewhere (e.g., Corcoran, Walker, and White 1988). However, when these differences between central city schools and other schools appeared, they tended to be between schools in central cities and those in urban fringe areas and large towns, and not between central city and rural and small town schools. Schools in central cities were more likely than those in urban fringe areas and large towns to report at least one building feature in less than adequate condition and more likely to report the need to spend money to bring the school into good overall condition. Additionally, the data revealed several ways in which the condition of rural and small town schools is different from that of other schools. For example, schools in rural areas and small towns were more likely than schools in urban fringe and large town areas to indicate that at least one environmental factor was unsatisfactory. Schools in rural areas and small towns were more likely than schools in urban fringe areas or large towns to report unsatisfactory acoustics, and were more likely than schools in both urban fringe areas and large towns and schools in central cities to report being unsatisfied with the physical security of buildings. Finally, schools in rural areas and small towns were more likely than schools in other areas to be severely underenrolled.

Schools located in impoverished communities are generally believed to be at greater risk for being in poorer condition. Schools with 70 percent or more of their students eligible for free or reducedprice lunch were more likely than schools with less than 40 percent of their students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch to report at least one building feature to be in less than adequate condition, and more likely to report that permanent additions were in less than adequate condition. Schools with 70 percent or more of their students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch were more likely than schools with less than 20 percent of their students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch to report roofs to be in less than adequate condition. Schools with the highest concentration of poverty were also more likely than schools with the lowest concentration of poverty to report at least one environmental factor to be unsatisfactory. Schools with high concentrations of minority students are also typically depicted as being in worse condition than schools with lower proportions of minority students (e.g., Lowe 1996). When considering specific building features and environmental factors, two differences emerged, both showing a higher percentage of schools with more than 50 percent minority enrollment indicating the feature to be in less than adequate condition. Specifically, schools with more than 50 percent minority enrollment were more likely than schools with 21 to 50 percent minority enrollment to report inadequate exterior walls, finishes, windows, or doors, and schools with greater than 50 percent minority enrollment were more likely than all other schools to report inadequate electric power.

Moreover, schools with more than 50 percent minority enrollment were generally more likely than schools with lower concentrations of minority students to be severely overcrowded.

School size, as indicated by current school enrollment, was also related to several dimensions of school condition (specific environmental factors, school functional age, and overcrowding). Medium schools were more likely than large schools to report unsatisfactory ventilation and acoustics, and small and medium schools were more likely than large schools to report that their classrooms needed air conditioning. School size was also related to the functional age of the school. On average, small schools had older functional ages than medium or large schools. Additionally, large schools were more likely than small schools to have a functional age of less than 5 years, and small schools were more likely than large schools to have a functional age between 15 and 34 years.

Finally, current school size was related to the degree to which the school was underenrolled or overcrowded. Small schools were more likely than medium schools, which in turn were more likely than large schools, to be underenrolled by more than 25 percent. Medium and large schools were more likely than small schools to be within 5 percent of their capacity, and large schools were more likely than medium and small schools to be overcrowded by more than 25 percent.

A number of differences between schools based upon their geographic region emerged, all indicating that the condition of schools in the West may be worse than elsewhere in the country. Although the overall condition of onsite buildings did not vary based upon region, schools in the West were more likely than schools in the Northeast to report that at least one building feature was in less than adequate condition.

Schools in the West were also more likely than schools in the Northeast to indicate four of nine building features to be in less than adequate condition. In addition, schools in the West were more likely than schools in the South or Northeast to indicate the need to spend money to bring the school into good overall condition. Schools in the West were also more likely to be severely overcrowded than schools in other regions, and were also more likely than schools elsewhere to have temporary buildings as part of the school. Finally, schools in the West were also more likely to indicate plans to install new temporary structures in the next 2 years.

Conclusions

Data from this survey suggest that although the majority of America's public schools are in adequate or better condition, a sizable minority are not. Approximately one-quarter of the schools reported at least one type of onsite building in less than adequate condition, half reported that their schools had building features in need of repair, and 4 out of 10 reported unsatisfactory environmental conditions. Data regarding the functional age of schools and their condition suggest that the oldest schools are the most in need of attention, but many of these schools do not have plans for improvement. The data also suggest that while three-quarters of schools do not have a problem with overcrowding, the remaining schools are overcrowded and close to 10 percent have enrollments that are more than 25 percent over the capacity of the school's permanent buildings.

These data, then, provide a complex portrait of the current physical condition and crowding of America's public schools. Although the majority of schools are in adequate condition, functionally young, and not overcrowded, a substantial number of schools are in poor condition, and some of them suffer from age and overcrowding. Past experience suggests that it will be costly to correct these problems.

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