by Angel Ford, Ed.D.

In previous blogs, I have frequently discussed the inequities of school building conditions across America. This blog will also talk about those inequities in light of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Let’s start by examining what ESSA states about educational facilities.

A search of the ESSA bill reveals very few mentions of school facilities. Charter school facilities are mentioned a number of times as well as the school facilities for students residing on Native American reservations. There is a mention of facility management in the context of community schools, and we also learn from the bill how federal dollars will be allocated for technology upgrades in schools, but these funds cannot be used to retrofit the built environment to accommodate improved technology. Beyond these considerations, there is no comprehensive plan to address school facilities.

While ESSA does not directly address the inequities of school building conditions, U.S. Secretary of Education John King repeatedly makes a clarion call for equity in education. Mr. King has emphasized that ESSA can be used to achieve equitable outcomes. However, there is little clarity from reading the actual bill to indicate how ESSA will approach facility conditions for all students. School facilities are a key element of this country’s educational infrastructure, and yet, the condition of school buildings and classrooms are very inequitable. Over half of the school buildings are in need of repair to even be considered in satisfactory condition (NCES, 2014).

In his address to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Secretary King (2016a) stated that many students still have “less access to the resources necessary to thrive.” Although, at the time, he did not discuss directly the built environment, evidence suggests that adequate school building conditions and design are a crucial resource for all students. Secretary King (2016b) has also said, “persistent opportunity gaps undermine equality.” I couldn’t agree more! I would like to challenge education stakeholders to think about the unequal condition of our school buildings as a contributing factor that causes opportunity gaps.

Tanner (2015) conducted a meta-analysis of dissertations related to the effects of educational facilities. This study examined how school facilities correlate with student outcomes. He found that many factors of the built learning environment have statistically significantly relationships with student outcomes. These building factors include, but are not limited to, the quality and availability of natural light; design aspects such as quiet spaces, display spaces, green spaces, and storage spaces; climate control; and the overall condition of the school building.

Under ESSA, each state’s department of education will determine its implementation of the law, and every state will need to examine whether or not they are meeting the call for greater equity in education. Those of us concerned with the state of school facilities should make a strong effort to increase awareness that the conditions of physical learning environments are a sign of equitable treatment of students. Whereas ESSA doesn’t discuss facility conditions directly, the legislation does promote equity, and we know that school building conditions are not equitable currently. Now the remedy for this situation is at the state level, and we should let our local state representatives know that facility improvements are an educational priority.


National Center for Education Statistics. (2014). Condition of America’s public school facilities. Retrieved from

Tanner, C. K. (2015). Effects of school architectural designs on students’ accomplishments: An meta-‐analysis.  Education Facilities Clearinghouse.

King, J. (2016a). Remarks Before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on the Nomination of Dr. John B. King Jr., to serve as Education Secretary. Retrieved from

King, J. (2016b). What we ought to be: Educational opportunity, civil rights and the Every Student Succeeds Act. Retrieved from

Dr. Angel Ford is a research associate with Education Facilities Clearinghouse (EFC).  Dr. Ford has previous experience working as a middle/high school administrator and actively participates in research and content management of the EFC website.

by Angel Ford, EdD

Finnish students are excelling academically; in fact, they are passing students in most other nations.  This has not always been the case, however.  Over the past forty years Finland has made great strides to equalize and expand opportunities for their students, empowering them to become some of the top-performing students in the world.

A question we should be asking in America is: What types of educational reform did Finland institute in order to see the marked improvement in student achievement?  The answer is multifaceted and includes improved curriculum quality, increased access, and efforts to support the quality of instruction (Darling-Hammond, 2010).  However, the area of Finland’s reform I would like to highlight is that of improving the physical learning environments where their students learn.

Sparks (2012) explained that Finnish architects developed school building models based on evidence of effective learning spaces.  The architects focused on aspects of the built environment that motivate students and encourage learning.  These designs moved away from factory-style buildings with traditional classrooms to “contemporary campuses built to meet the pedagogical and social needs of their students and teachers” (Sparks, 2012).

Not only did the architects study and apply best practices in designing learning environments, they also worked in direct collaboration with teachers and administrators (Sparks, 2012).  Their designs included clusters of classrooms, areas to view the outside, appropriate lighting, and other building features that have been shown to improve student achievement and well-being.

Sparks (2012) stated that visitors to Finland would see beautifully designed, well-constructed, and thoroughly maintained buildings.  How would visitors to school buildings in American describe what they see?  Some of our schools could be described as attractive state-of-the-art buildings equipped with modern technology; unfortunately, many other schools would be described as drab, run-down buildings without even the basic resources necessary for 21st century learning.

What are we saying to students who attend school in dilapidated buildings?  Are we implying that their education is not important?  Or, are we letting them know that we are only fulfilling an obligation to provide four walls to house them for a certain number of hours every day?

Let’s learn from Finland, and let’s begin to equalize and expand the opportunities our students have by designing and retrofitting the places where they learn based on best practices and solid evidence of effective building designs.  The access students have to clean, well-maintained, and thoughtfully designed learning spaces should not be based on their socio-economic status or where they live in America.  Students from rural communities, students from urban communities and students from the suburbs should all have access to learning spaces that promote healthy living and that help them stay motivated to learn.


Darling-Hammond, L. (2010). What we can learn from Finland’s successful school reform. National Education Association. Retrieved from

Sparks, S. (2012). Finland rethinks factory-style school buildings. Education Week. Retrieved from

Dr. Angel Ford is a research associate with Education Facilities Clearinghouse (EFC).  Dr. Ford has previous experience working as a middle/high school administrator and actively participates in research and content management of the EFC website.

by Angel Ford, EdD

U.S. Secretary of Education John King wants equity emphasized as ESSA (the Every Student Succeeds Act) is implemented. ESSA is intended to increase funding and access to early learning programs. Improved access to early learning and King’s desire for equity go well together well. Evidence is plentiful that children who participate in high-quality preschool programs have better outcomes compared to children who do not have this opportunity (ED, 2015). It is also well established that not all preschool aged children have access to programs, therefore access is definitely not equitable (ED, 2015).

Currently only 41% of children are attending publicly funded preschool (ED, 2015). Sure, some families choose to keep these young children at home or place them in private establishments, but a significant number simply do not have access (ED, 2015). Even though ESSA may not address directly the facilities in which early learning takes place, these spaces are important to consider when discussing early learning programs.

First, we could ask: Are some schools not offering preschool because they don’t have adequate space to accommodate an early learning program? Second, for those schools that “make do” or house the preschoolers in standard traditional classrooms we could ask: Do these learning spaces place restrictions on instruction and large motor skill development activities because the original design was for lecture based instruction? Equitable early learning programs need to be housed in appropriate spaces, and, furthermore, the design and condition of these early learning spaces matter!

In a number of my past blogs, I have highlighted the inequities of school building conditions and the opportunity gaps these disparities create for students. In this blog, I would like to expound on this idea by adding to the conversation the condition of the spaces in which early learning takes place. Evidence shows a link between the quality of the learning spaces and the quality of the preschool programs (Arthur, Larson, Gillman & Sussman, 2006), and popular child development specialists such as Piaget and Montessori emphasized the importance of the physical learning spaces of preschoolers (Acer, Gözen, Fırat, Kefeli, & Aslan, 2016). Early learning spaces that are not designed and maintained specifically with best practices in mind could have elements that distract the students either emotionally or cognitively, causing them to be less able to concentrate on the learning processes in which the educators are trying to engage them (Arndt, 2012).

For now, I will just state that the physical learning spaces in which our youngest students attend should be designed or renovated in such a way to provide the best possible environment for these early learners. Learning spaces that are designed or redesigned to meet the needs of preschoolers can have a positive effect on their development and success (Acer et al., 2016). Specific examples of appropriately designed learning spaces will not be provided here, but may be discussed in future blogs. As ESSA increases funding for early childhood education, contemplations should take place about best-built environments. Less fortunate preschoolers should not have to attend dirty, ill-equipped, run-down buildings that may not have been created for such use, while more fortunate preschoolers are able to attend beautiful, clean, and well-resourced centers.

I am not suggesting that the physical environment should be the only focus, as the qualification of the teachers, the effectiveness of the curriculum, and other factors, play critical roles. What I am suggesting is that if we do not consider also the physical learning environments, an important part of the equation is being left out. The places where preschool students learn is one important variable that cannot be overlooked when establishing and expanding early learning education across the nation.


Acer, D., Gözen, G., Fırat, Z. S., Kefeli, H., and Aslan, B. (2016). Effects of a redesigned classroom on play behaviour among preschool children. Early Child Development and Care, 1-18.

Arndt, P. A. (2012). Design of learning spaces: Emotional and cognitive effects of learning environments in relation to child development. Mind, Brain, and Education6(1), 41-48.

United States Department of Education (ED). (2015). A matter of equity: Preschool in America.

Dr. Angel Ford is a research associate with Education Facilities Clearinghouse (EFC).  Dr. Ford has previous experience working as a middle/high school administrator and actively participates in research and content management of the EFC website.




By Angel Ford

School facility conditions are tied to student attitudes, behaviors, and success, therefore little argument can be raised that school facility upkeep and construction should be a consideration in educational planning and funding decisions. Students in buildings in poor condition perform lower than students in buildings in adequate or exceptional condition. Fortunate or privileged students often attend beautiful, clean, well resourced schools and unfortunate or underprivileged students often attend unattractive, dirty, and even unsafe schools.

In the book Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give Every Child an Even Chance, Carter and Welner (2013) discuss how closing the opportunity gap would lead to closing the achievement gap. The achievement gap appears in standardized testing, dropout rates, college readiness, and general academic achievement.

Carter and Welner (2013) compile essays from a number of authors tackling the issues of inequity in educational opportunities and link these inequities directly to the achievement gap. The authors of the essays discuss concerns about housing disparities, preschool enrollment disparities, teacher quality disparities, resource disparities, and others. Along this vein, I would like to suggest that the condition of educational facilities be considered as part of the resource disparities and, thus, a part of the opportunity gap.

Over half of the schools in our nation are in need of repairs to be considered in satisfactory condition (NCES, 2014). The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE, 2013) grade American educational facilities with a “D”. This means that a high percentage of students are attending classes in buildings that are subpar and even, in some cases, considered unsafe. Twenty-nine percent of school buildings have safety features in need of repair (NCES, 2014).

Unfortunately, school buildings that are in need of repair are often in the poorest districts, where students already contend with variables predicting lower academic success. Students in poor districts are often those that are lower on the socioeconomic scale, students who are English language learners, students with disabilities, students who are minorities, students who are homeless, or students in foster care (NEA, 2015). The condition of the school buildings they attend appear to be one more challenge against their achievement.

Could improving the places where these less fortunate students learn and equalizing the opportunities that each student has, improve their academic success? I am not saying that improving school buildings would automatically solve the academic achievement gap. Of course, this is an over-simplified solution and many variables need to be considered, but this is one aspect of education in our nation that we know is not equitable and that we know has an impact. We know this from both qualitative and quantitative research, from both a breakdown of isolated variables and a holistic picture. The condition of school facilities should not be ignored when looking at the achievement gap.

Angel Ford is a research associate with Education Facilities Clearinghouse.  Dr. Ford actively participates in research and content management of the EFC website.  

American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). (2013). 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. Reston, VA: American Society of Civil Engineers. Retrieved from

Carter, P. L., & Welner, K. G. (2013). Closing the opportunity gap: What America must do to give every child an even chance. Oxford University Press.

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). (2014). Condition of America’s public schools facilities. Retrieved from

Discussion Points at Presentation at Academy for Educational Studies conference in San Antonio, TX, March 7-9, 2016

Inequality in school facilities

Unsatisfactory school buildings affect learning

Inequality of facilities and resources contribute to the achievement gap

Equalize facilities and resources and equalize achievement

Inequality Presentation Slides

By:  Dr. G. Victor Hellman, Jr.

In November 2015, Berkley’s Jeffrey Vincent and Liz Jain released the study, Going it Alone: Can California’s K-12 School Districts Adequately and Equitably Fund School Facilities?  In their research they conducted an analysis of spending on K-12 public school facilities within the state of California utilizing metrics that compare to industry standards.  Overall, they find substantial rates of underinvestment. While these findings have important implications for California policy, I also believe the authors have provided a practical framework for analysis that can be used by other states to examine the equity and adequacy of their facility financing.  In this blog, we will first establish some operational definitions, and then review Vincent and Jain’s analytic framework.  Finally we will examine their findings and review their policy recommendations.

Two concepts that are essential to Vincent and Jain’s analysis are equitable and adequateAdequate funding implies that the funding is sufficient to meet the needs or bring about the desired results for that which is funded.  For example, adequate funds must be budgeted to meet the school division’s operational and capital needs.  Now let’s examine the concept of equitable.  On a simplistic level, it is tempting to think of equitable and equal as synonymous.  This is not the case.  Equality implies that all parties are treated equally.  Using per pupil funding under the concept of equality would imply each school division within a state or each school within a division receives the same dollar amount per student.  While this method achieves equality of funding, it is not necessarily an equitable process.  Simply put, the concept of equity implies funding at a different level depending upon the needs.  At the core of equity is the fact that needs differ and spending must too.  A community with a high percentage of low socioeconomic students may need to spend more per pupil to level the playing field.  Some communities have higher real estate assessments (AV) on a per capita basis than others.  These communities are able to generate revenue easier than their lower socio-economic neighbors.  Only by funding equitably can equality be achieved.

In their analysis, Vincent and Jain identify some best practices for Maintenance and Operations (M&O) spending for school facilities.  For facility operations they utilize 1% of the current replacement value (CRV) on an annual basis as a minimum investment.  For routine maintenance they utilize 1.5 to 2% CRV as a minimum annual investment.  The division’s operating budget typically funds these expenditures.  Capital renewal or modernizations are typically funded by a division’s capital budget.  Projects that fall into this category deal with major repair, alterations and replacement of building systems (e.g. HVAC, roofs, windows).  Best practice annual investment is identified at 1.5 to 2% of CRV.  The authors postulate that by spending 3% CRV for M&O (from the operating budget) and 2% for capital renewal (from the capital budget), school facilities will be clean, safe and functional.  This assumption is noted as accurate provided there is no deferred maintenance for the facility.

For the analysis, Vincent and Jain first looked at the characteristics of California school districts spending above and below the 3% CRV for annual combined M&O.  Their findings show that only 38% of the districts spend at the best practice level of 3% of CRV or more while 62% of the districts spend less than the 3%.  From an equity perspective, the 38% of the districts spending 3% or more have an average assessed value of real property (AV) per student of $3,032,912 while the AV per student of the 62% of the divisions that do not meet the 3% spending is $1,030,594 or roughly 66% less than those districts that meet best practice.  When performing a similar analysis on capital renewal they find that 43% of the districts meet or exceed the 2% of CRV and 57% do not.  As in the previous analysis, the average AV per student for those districts that meet the best practice is $2,610,402 and for those districts that do not meet the benchmark, their average AV per student is $1,153,000 or more than 50% less.  AV is important to these comparisons inasmuch as it is a proxy for the districts’ ability to generate revenue.  Vincent and Jain found 38% of the districts failed to meet either benchmark.  The average AV per student of these districts was $878,202 compared to $2,346,441 AV for the 62% of the districts that met at least one of the two benchmarks.

From their analysis, Vincent and Jain put forth three findings:

  • The majority of school districts in California do not spend adequately on school facilities. Nearly 80% of the districts fail to meet minimum industry standard benchmark spending for M&O, capital renewal or both.
  • Districts that have more wealth spend more on their facilities, especially on capital renewal.
  • Districts that serve low income students spend proportionally more on M&O from their operating budgets thereby reducing available funds for instructional spending.

Vincent and Jain make four policy recommendations for the state of California based on their findings:

  • Establish stable, dedicated state funds for K-12 school facilities.
  • Distribute K-12 school facility funds equitably, adjusting for local wealth.
  • Improve standards for school facility planning and budgeting.
  • Establish a California School Facility Database to guide spending.

While the results of Vincent and Jain’s analysis should not shock or surprise anyone involved in school finance or facilities, the analysis does document and validate there are inequitable spending patterns on public K-12 facilities within the state of California.  More importantly, their analysis provides a conceptual framework that can be utilized by other states to examine their spending patterns on educational facilities.

A copy of the complete study can be found at

Dr. G. Victor Hellman, Jr., serves as the Research Project Director for the Education Facilities Clearinghouse (EFC). Victor has more than 31 years of work experience in public schools in Virginia. Prior to joining the EFC, he served as Deputy Superintendent of Operations and Support for a mid-urban school district. In that role, he was responsible for finance, facilities, transportation, student services, and food services.


The Center for Cities + Schools (CC+S) at the University of California, Berkeley harnesses the potential of urban planning to close the opportunity gap and improve education.


National Center for Women & Information Technology, PROMISING PRACTICES, 2011

Hank Levy, Chair of the University of Washington’s Department of Computer Science & Engineering, described the design of a new building that applied principles supported by research on stereotypes and the environment. The new building is one of many actions the department takes for promoting diversity.

The Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington opened in 2003. Among its major goals, the building was intended to be warm, welcoming, and “nontechy” in appearance. All spaces are carpeted to give it a soft feel, and the extensive use of cherry wood trim adds warmth. Unlike most academic buildings, there are no conference or technical posters lining the hallways. Instead, occupants and visitors see a collection of original paintings, prints, and photographs from 22 university-affiliated artists whenever they enter or leave a floor in the building. This artwork is the only wall covering in the building. Computer labs in the basement have colorful walls adorned with large nature photographs. Overall, the goal was to make the Allen Center a people-oriented building that surrounds users with softness, warmth, and a celebration of aesthetics.

View Handout

Kenneth Phelps, 2013

Of all the influences on educational achievement—e.g., teacher qualifications and motivation, administrative support, and parental and community involvement—among the least recognized is the condition and appropriateness of the school capital facility. Since the state constitution mandates that all students have an equal opportunity to attain a relevant education, a lack—or inequality—of any of those influences would seem to demand rectification. In probing the perceptions of superintendents and finance officers in North Carolina school districts, this research determined that the administrators (1) recognize the importance of capital facilities to educational success, (2) identify capital facility needs within their own district, and (3) attribute those needs to shortcomings of finances. However, a consensus regarding the appropriate process for ensuring greater equity of facilities was not found. In general, there was the perception that funding distribution based on horizontal equity (“headcount”) was not appropriate in many cases, current practice notwithstanding, and such distribution should be to some extent needs-based. This study concludes with a recommendation for increased state involvement in the funding process, with allocations to be made among selected districts each year, and aimed to redress specific extreme deficiencies in capital facilities. Funding is proposed to be derived from an increase in the state sales tax, and allocated primarily according to need.

View Dissertation

Jeffrey Vincent and Liz Jain, 2015

Analysis of spending on K-12 public school facilities in California finds that, compared to industry standards, there is an ongoing, structural pattern of inadequate and inequitable spending in many school districts. This trend signals costly long-term consequences as accumulated facility needs risk becoming health and safety crises.

View Article

By Dr. Linda Lemasters.

While writing the blog last week on the achievement gap, I read a great deal of research on urban education and inner city schools.  Education in rural America is mentioned often as an afterthought.  There is little knowledge of failing schools and children in need across sparsely populated farmlands, mountains, and deserts (Wang, 2014).  A few researchers are very vocal about problems of education reform in rural areas, and suggest more research is needed.  Until that happens there will be a limited awareness of facts and concerns about resources, programs, school buildings, and ultimately achievement in rural schools; and, education reform will be thwarted and limited.  The following are facts about rural education, which can jump-start our discussion:

  • One third of rural American schools have low-income students, low achievement on standardized tests, and low rates for college attendance (Rees, 2014).
  • Rural communities are generally small with a low local tax base, resulting in inadequate funding for schools.
  • Rural schools serve over 40% of U.S. students, yet receive only 22% of federal funding.
  • “. . . Students in rural communities are likelier than their peers to live in poverty and only 27% go on to college” (Rees, 2014).
  • Rural areas suffer a critical shortage of teachers, often employing teachers who are not licensed in the subjects they teach (Wang, 2014).
  • Based on USDoED statistics, reading and math scores in rural districts are as low or lower than those in urban districts (Biddle, 2011).
  • Graduation rates for poor and minority students who attended and/or graduated from rural high schools during the 2005-2006 school year were the same as the urban districts.Based on available research and anecdotal evidence, schools attended by low-income students have major deficiencies compared with those used by their richer peers.  Although there has not been a nation-wide survey for nearly 20 years, available state data suggest there is a nexus between the condition of schools, the number of low-income students attending schools, and their achievement.

In 2009, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania conducted an enrollment and building capacity study (Yan).  Some of the findings of this work included:

  • Rural schools in general were older than their counterparts in the suburbs and cities, both in real and functional age.
  • Respondents from schools with functional ages of 15 years or more were more likely to note roofs, foundations, and walls as unsatisfactory, poor, or borderline.
  • Older schools typically had worse building safety conditions and often reported fire alarms, smoke detectors, and sprinkler systems in poor condition. Emergency lighting was rated as borderline.
  • Building energy efficiency was reported as poor or borderline in older facilities.
  • Building accessibility, handicapped accessibility, student drop-off areas, and vehicular ingress and egress were often rated poor or borderline in the older schools.

Arkansas, Virginia, Washington, DC., North Dakota, and other states also have been the topic of similar studies.  Dewees and Earthman’s (2000) research on rural schools noted that it was not unusual that rural students attend schools over 100 years old.  The Educational Facilities Clearinghouse has fielded calls from rural areas that report problems due to deferred maintenance and bond issues, which have been voted down numerous times.  The vote by the community may or may not be due to lack of support for the local schools; it may be a lack of income on the part of the voters or the low assessed value of local real estate.  In contrast, school age of urban schools is improving, and funds to build new urban schools are more available through local or state support or in some instances federal dollars.

Finally, I request you review the EdBuild student poverty map (Click here Lines.html#).  You can click on any of the pink to dark pink areas to see the population, student population, student poverty population, and student poverty rate.  Do you note that many rural areas have high rates of poverty?  Do you recognize that areas of poverty are in the midst of prosperous districts?

After analyzing the EdBuild map, take a look and compare the map of cities, towns, suburbs, and rural areas.  Pictorially note the rural areas (fringe, distant, and remote); many times they are in the heart of areas of poverty (NCES).

It would be negligent should I not mention that rural schools do produce students who achieve, many rural schools have small class sizes, and students are able to take advanced coursework by making use of distance learning and technology.  What I want to be recognized, however, is that rural schools often face the same challenges as our urban schools.  When it comes to research and funding, their needs must be recognized, if education reform is going to be successful in all of our united states.

Figure 1:  Student Poverty and School District Borders (Click here for interactive map)










EdBuild (2015).











Data Source : U.S. Census Bureau; Urban-centric Locale Codes, developed by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)

References and Resources

Linda Lemasters, Director, Education Facilities Clearinghouse

Linda is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development of the George Washington University, where she advises students, directs student research, and directs a project at Taibah University in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  Her areas of expertise and research include educational planning, facilities management, and women CEOs.  She actively conducts research concerning the effects of the facility on the student and teacher, publishes within her field, and has written or edited numerous books including School Maintenance & Renovation:  Administrator Policies, Practices, and Economics and book chapters including a recent chapter, Places Where Children Play, published July, 2014 in Marketing the Green School:  Form, Function, and the Future.