Education Today: Decaying School Buildings

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With all the emphasis on boosting students' academic skills, it's not surprising that efforts and resources to maintain older school buildings have fallen by the wayside. Across the country, many public schools face a loss of accreditation because of unsafe or sub-par building conditions. Some schools lack such basics as bathroom stall doors or hot running water; others are threatened with ceilings caving in.

Is your child's school safe? In 2000, two years before NCLB's rigorous academic requirements took effect, a study by the National Center for Education Statistics revealed that:

  • One in four U.S. public schools had at least one building in "less than adequate" condition; and

  • 76 percent reported they would have to spend money on repairs, renovations or modernization to bring schools up to par.

The National Education Association puts a price tag of $268 billion on construction and repairs needed in the nation's public schools. That's a problem when local school districts are having a hard enough time keeping up with the demand for new schools, let alone the repairs needed for aging ones.

Fortunately, things have started to improve. Faced with the urgency of this situation, school districts spent nearly $29.2 billion on the construction and renovation of public K-12 schools in 2003, a 4 percent increase from $28.1 billion spent in 2002, according to the National Clearinghouse on Educational Facilities. And, in a report in American School & University magazine in 2003, districts projected spending an additional $93.7 billion from 2003 to 2005.

When funds are hard to come by, some school officials and even parents are pursuing other solutions. In Colorado, one school district received a big financial boost in 2005 when housing developers gave the district $10 million to build desperately needed new schools. They're providing another $10 million this year.

In California, parents and teachers chose the legal path. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on their behalf, depicting some of the state's public schools as "hellholes." In settling the suit in 2004, the state agreed to spend about $800 million more over several years to repair 2,400 schools housing more than 1 million students; an extra $139 million will be directed to new books and materials.

Beyond crumbling facilities, the air your child breathes in school each day may also be hazardous to his or her health. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that half of the nation's schools may have polluted indoor air. While some schools investigate whether mold in damp buildings is responsible, others are eyeing the toxic chemicals used to keep schools clean.

New York became the first state in the nation last year to require that schools use environmentally healthy - "green" - cleaning products to protect kids, teachers and all school personnel from exposure to products deemed toxic to humans.

Raising public awareness is key to school clean-up efforts. Each spring, the nonprofit Healthy Schools Network designates an annual National Healthy Schools Day to encourage parents and educators to take action to ensure their school buildings are safe places for kids and employees. The network and a coalition of educational organizations, including the American School Health Association, released a report claiming that an estimated 32 million children currently attend schools with environmental or occupational health problems.

Meanwhile, the National Academies' National Research Council also released a report this past April on how "green schools" affect the health, performance and productivity of students, teachers and staff. Not surprisingly, the researchers concluded that better building conditions are directly tied to better student achievement.

Articles in this series:

  • How Schools Are Confronting Their Own Problems: As kids stock up on notebooks, pencils and calculators for the new school year, teachers and administrators are beginning their fifth year under the country's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education reform law. Click to learn more

  • The Lag in Math & Science: We may be a country with vastly more resources than other nations, but when it comes to math and science know-how, our kids don't seem to count. Click to learn more

  • Boys' Academic Failure: The worry that boys are falling behind girls academically has repeatedly made headlines this year. But debate continues over whether this is actually true. Click to learn more

  • The Race & Class Gap: While the gender gap is debatable, almost everyone agrees that when it comes to academic achievement, race and class count far more. Click to learn more

  • Decaying School Buildings: With all the emphasis on boosting students' academic skills, it's not surprising that efforts and resources to maintain older school buildings have fallen by the wayside. Click to learn more


On the Web

  • Healthy Schools Network: This non-profit research and advocacy organization is dedicated to environmentally healthy schools.

  • MathMovesU:  This initiative of Raytheon Company aims to improve the way U.S. middle school students view math.

  • The Michael Gurian Educational Institute:  Provides parents and teachers with information about how boys and girls learn differently.

  • Moms for Math:  Helps parents understand the importance of math, and offers them tips to help children with math.

  • Parents for Public Schools:  Works to ensure that all public schools effectively serve all children. They offer a multitude of parent resources.