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Facilities Policy Brief


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.

New Questions

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:

What resources and conditions do schools need to enable their students to meet the state's learning standards?
How much funding is required to build and maintain the necessary resources and conditions?
What kind of state education capital finance system would best deliver that funding to all schools?

Although cost 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.

Finance Litigation

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, Arkansas, New Jersey, Ohio, Wyoming, 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 Mexico, Arizona, and Idaho, 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 constant diligence.

In 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.
In 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.
In 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.
In 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