Historically, local tax revenues have been the
dominant source of funds for building and renovating
public school facilities, with support from state
governments and small federal initiatives, combined,
supplying less than a quarter of all facilities
funds nationwide. Usually, state support has been
based on a politically determined amount of available
money – without regard to educational needs
or construction costs – and the outcome of
a political struggle over how to distribute that
money among a state's school districts. As a result,
the quality of school facilities varies dramatically,
and often inequitably, based on differences between
communities’ local ability to pay and the
balance of political power in the state.
Over the past few decades, a growing body of research
has affirmed that schools that are overcrowded, deteriorated,
or that lack modern science labs, computers, libraries,
and auditoriums make it difficult for students to succeed
and harder for teachers to teach. As a result, a new
set of questions has emerged regarding the nature, scope,
and adequacy of state funds to support school facilities:
resources and conditions do schools need
to enable their students to meet the state's learning
much funding is required to build and maintain
the necessary resources and conditions?
kind of state education capital finance system
would best deliver that funding to all schools?
studies have helped address these questions, they
have generally focused on schools’ day-to-day
operating costs and not considered facilities needs.
Nevertheless, a number of states have adopted statewide
school facilities standards and conducted school facility
evaluations to determine cost estimates for bringing
all inadequate school buildings up to par. In response
to enrollment growth and the deterioration of aging
school facilities in recent years, many states have
increased their financial contributions to pay for a
number of needed facilities projects.
An additional impetus for school facilities funding
reform has come from the courts, a number of which have
declared their state's school funding system unconstitutional
as a result of education
finance litigation. Close to twenty states have
revised school facilities funding in response to lawsuits,
and courts in Alaska,
and elsewhere have expressly determined that adequate
facilities are an important component of the state’s
constitutional responsibility. Under court order, a
number of these states have dramatically increased their
support for school construction and renovation.
Some states, like New
have faced lawsuits that explicitly challenged the constitutionality
of the state’s method of facilities funding. Plaintiffs
have prevailed in the majority of these cases, but legislative
responses to the court orders have been mixed.
See our one-page chart
about school facilities finance litigation.
Challenges of Reform
The implementation of facilities reforms often gets
bogged down or seriously compromised due to political
deal-making, insufficient funding, or lack of technical
expertise at the district and state level. States face
the challenge of choosing which deficiencies in school
facilities to prioritize (i.e. overcrowding, health
and safety, science labs, computers, libraries) given
budget constraints and competing political pressures
from constituencies with different needs. Local communities
also struggle financially to support their school facilities,
especially when changing and unstable state policies
make garnering local voter support for school budgets
and long-range facilities planning difficult.
Even in the case of plaintiff victory in finance
litigation, improved facilities funding has required
Idaho, after the state’s supreme court declared
the state’s facilities funding unconstitutional,
the legislature passed a law that was designed
simply to end litigation on the issue. Only after
being taken to court over this new law did the
legislature begin to express willingness to seriously
overhaul their funding system.
New Mexico, the state legislature responded actively
to the court’s order, studying and redesigning
their facilities financing system and committing
new state money to school construction. However,
the system was almost immediately bypassed by
the Governor and legislature in favor of providing
extra funding to more politically powerful districts,
rather than the poor, rural districts that had
been plaintiffs in that state’s lawsuit.
New Jersey, facilities became part of the state’s
long-running adequacy lawsuit, Abbott v. Burke.
The state pledged substantial additional funding
to a facilities construction and repair plan that
was designed to provide adequate and equitable
facilities across the state. However, the money
that the state committed to the project was used
up on a fraction of the planned projects, and
the state agency charged with managing the state’s
facilities program was revealed as corrupt and
wasteful. The aftermath of that scandal has proven
devastating to high-needs districts, as projects
have stalled and the state remains hesitant to
commit substantial new funds to the project.
Arkansas, the state responded to the court’s
order by commissioning an extensive study that
purported to identify facilities needs across
the entire state. However, the state’s subsequent
appropriation of facilities funding was declared
totally insufficient by the special masters in
the state’s adequacy case, and the legislature
was forced to appropriate more funds. The adequacy
of those funds, and the legislature’s continued
commitment to the state’s facilities funding
plan remain to be seen.
Updated April 2007