More than 6.2 million students attend K-12 public schools in California, but the conditions of the classrooms they sit in, playgrounds they run on and cafeterias they eat in are largely unknown. Unlike 22 other states in the country, California does not have a statewide inventory of its public school facilities.
Creating a statewide inventory of public school facilities was among several recommendations made in a state-commissioned report released last week. The report [PDF], by UC Berkeley's Center for Cities & Schools, highlighted an issue with which state and school officials have long grappled: How do we know the facility needs of our nearly 10,000 public schools?
"If the governor issued an executive order to improve the 100 worst-condition school buildings, no one could really bring him the list," said Jeffrey Vincent, lead author of the report and deputy director of the center. "The state's almost shooting in the dark, frankly."
By considering projected K-12 enrollment and existing facilities' modernization and maintenance needs, Vincent found that California schools will need $117 billion and policy changes over the next decade to ensure their facilities are safe, modern, equitable and sustainable learning environments. In order to be strategic with those funds, he said, California must be able to identify what and where the facilities needs are.
School facilities inventories are among the best practices in other states, said Kathleen Moore, director of school facilities and transportation services in the state Department of Education.
"Every day in education, we're asked to make quality decisions based upon the research and based upon the data, and I don't think that facilities should be any different," she said.
The recommendation for a statewide inventory comes as the state's school construction bond funding nears exhaustion and as officials consider how the state and local schools will fund facilities moving forward. Over the next year, the state will work with school facilities stakeholders and the UC Berkeley center to study the feasibility of the report's recommendations, which also include aligning school infrastructure with broader efforts for strategic community growth, Moore said.
State and local bonds, local developer fees, and deferred maintenance funds have provided about $118 billion for new school construction and modernization since 1998, relieving overcrowded classrooms and improving campus health and safety. Over the next decade, schools will need $53 billion to maintain and replace those investments, $28 billion to modernize aging campuses and $36 billion to keep up with enrollment growth, Vincent calculated.
If the state continues to fund school facilities – it provided 30 percent of school construction funding between 2005 and 2008, according to the report – it must do so with an eye toward equity and prioritize funding around the greatest needs, he said.
State funding for public school facilities is largely doled out on a first-come, first-served basis – a process that favors schools that typically have more resources, organization and planning, Vincent said. Without adequate and equitable funding, he said, campus conditions deteriorate and schools don't build educational enhancements like science and technology labs.
"I do think if we chart the same course that the state runs a big risk of another facilities adequacy lawsuit, not unlike the Williams suit," he said.
Williams v. California was a class-action lawsuit that argued that tens of thousands of students, most of whom were low-income and nonwhite, were being deprived of basic educational opportunities by attending schools in "slum conditions."
The state settled the suit in 2004, promising $800 million to help the lowest-performing schools become clean, safe and functional. A recent investigation by California Watch, sister site of The Bay Citizen, found the state has provided less than half of that money, and more than 700 schools have been waiting as long as four years for their share of funds.
But how can a state with more than 300,000 classrooms prioritize facilities funding? Is one school's leaky roof more urgent than another's moldy floor?
Ensuring equity in facilities funding is "a real challenge," said Brooks Allen, director of education advocacy at the ACLU of Southern California and the attorney overseeing the Williams settlement's implementation. In addition to needing a uniform, objective measure for assessing school facilities, the state also would need a "baseline standard of what's expected to be part of a school," he said.
"It shouldn't just be that you have four walls and there's a door, and you call that a school. There's much more than that," Allen said.
Yet that's still very much how schools are built today, said Joe Dixon, vice chairman of California's Coalition for Adequate School Housing, a group that lobbies for school facilities. Dixon is also assistant superintendent of facilities and governmental relations in the Santa Ana Unified School District.
"We're still stuck in the 960-square-foot box," he said. "Well, guess what? If we want to be Pacific Rim-leading, economic-engine kind of people, we have to build schools differently."