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Rebuilding our schools, literally

A worker takes a lunch break during construction of a new school in the Los Angeles-area city of Maywood, Calif.

Politicians and taxpayers alike spend a great deal of time thinking about the state of the American education system, debating topics ranging from teacher salaries to the merits of standardized testing. But there’s often less attention given to the buildings where students learn.

It would take over $270 billion just to return American schools to working condition, according to a report released Tuesday by The Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council. They estimate is would require a whopping $540 billion to truly modernize schools.

“The typical parent and the typical taxpayer when asked what constitutes a quality education, will talk exclusively about the who and what -- the teachers and the curriculum -- with no real mind toward the where,” says Rachel Gutter, the director of The Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council.

But Gutter says the numbers offered in the report are the organizations best guesses, estimates based on public and private data. Part of the problem, she says, the last major federal study on the condition of schools was in the mid-1990s.

Yet a number of researchers have shown that the conditions in which children learn can affect their educational outcomes.

“Kids who study in a rotten environment where the toilets don’t function and windows are broken and the paint is peeling on the walls are going to do worse,” says Maureen Berner, a professor at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. 

In a study published in the early 1990s, Berner found the average test scores of students learning in buildings deemed to be in poor condition were ten percentage points lower than those in excellent conditions -- even when controlling for other factors, like income, neighborhood, or race.

Moreover, these conditions don’t affect students equally.

“Most of these schools that are in poor condition -- the vast majority -- are in school districts where children of poverty are attending, inner city and rural areas,” says Glen Earthman, a professor emeritus at Virginia Tech who has also research the impact of school condition on student performance.

While the exact amount of money needed to get schools into fighting shape is hard to quantity, school construction spending has dropped in recent years. Schools spent $12 billion on construction in 2011, according School Planning and Management Magazine. That’s about half of what was spent each year from 2000 to 2008.

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