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EQUALIZING SCHOOL QUALITY: PROGRESSIVE FINANCE OF SCHOOL FACILITIES NEEDED IN CALIFORNIA

Posted on by BRUCE FULLER, PHD
Filed under: School Facilities,
Tagged: bruce fuller
A NEW UC BERKELEY CENTER FOR CITIES+SCHOOLS STUDY FINDS THAT MORE THAN HALF OF CALIFORNIA’S K-12 SCHOOL DISTRICTS UNDERSPEND ON THEIR FACILITIES, COMPARED TO BEST PRACTICE SPENDING STANDARDS. THIS IS A GUEST BLOG REFLECTING ON THE RESEARCH FINDINGS AND IMPLICATIONS FOR CALIFORNIA STATE POLICY.

Gov. Brown’s deputies find themselves in a contradictory position as they consider whether or not to tax local communities to improve crumbling school facilities.

The Administration presses forward on one of the largest efforts to redistribute public resources toward lower-income families and their children ever attempted by any government. The governor’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) reform will allocate about $57 billion to school districts that serve large counts of low-achieving children – to support annual operating budgets of local schools.

But the governor’s aides seem hesitant to acknowledge Sacramento’s pivotal role in equalizing spending on schools – raising revenue through a progressive tax system, then redirecting a portion to kids that need the most help – when it comes to repairing dilapidated schools. The new study by my UC Berkeley colleagues at the Center for Cities + Schools, Going it Alone: Can California’s K-12 School Districts Adequately and Equitably Fund School Facilities? shows just why some districts need more state assistance for their facilities than others.

We know that the physical quality of classrooms – from ensuring clean air, ample natural light, and comfortable space in which to work – leads to steeper learning curves for students. But the policy community tends to ignore the importance of the physical spaces that pupils and teacher inhabit – the role it plays in nurturing stronger and innovative pedagogy.

When my own research group tracked achievement of LAUSD students moving from overcrowded schools to new facilities, we found marked gains in performance. In our work among LAUSD schools between 2002 and 2008, we found that students that enjoyed new facilities displayed achievement gains equal to about 35 days of additional instruction.

A parallel analysis in in LAUSD cites the voice of a delighted teacher: “The fact that everything is new, the fact that you feel like you own it…and the classroom, has it changed? I mean, not really, but the kids, their attitudes, their smiles….it makes you more excited to come to work.”

The need for adequate funding for California’s K-12 school buildings is illustrated by recent this statement by LAUSD’s chief of facilities:

"Keeping our schools well maintained and ensuring they provide a safe environment for students and staff is a core responsibility of ours and is just as important as anything else we do. Past budget reductions have impacted our ability to properly fulfill this responsibility. …Requests for repairs are delayed, classrooms are related due to system failures, and the backlog of repair needs continues to grow. …As an organization we cannot continue to underfund and defer needed repairs."

The governor’s local-control thrust potentially empowers local districts to pursue quality reforms that work, classroom efforts that narrow wide achievement gaps between students, rich or poor. But the quality of facilities plays a role in the success of failure of local educators. The surge in operating budgets, thanks to Local Control Funding, may be all for naught, if teachers are forced to engage students in unsafe, unhealthy, and/or uninspiring buildings.

I do agree with the Legislative Analyst's Office that some communities do hold the wealth to tax themselves to finance the renovation of their schools. Drive through affluent neighborhoods and you will discover beautiful school libraries, splendid gyms and sports fields, renovated teacher lounges. Then, visit schools in California’s low income areas. You will see the disparities that persist when we rely solely on a local community’s wealth to improve their schools.

Moving forward, we must resist being penny wise and pound foolish. It’s essential for public education quality in California that all students attend adequate facilities that support teaching and learning objectives. Shifting to a more progressive finance of facility funding should greatly help get us there.

Bruce Fuller, PhD is Professor of Education and Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. All views here are his own.