California needs to invest in its school facilities
By Tom Torlakson and Jack O’Connell
San Francisco Chronicle, January 6, 2016 | Updated: January 6, 2016 3:40pm
Research shows that children perform better in safe, modern learning environments. However, a recent study published by UC Berkeley’s Center for Cities and Schools rang the alarm that school districts are struggling to keep up with basic facility maintenance. The report states that the majority of districts are underspending on maintenance, which could lead to decaying school buildings. The report also found an alarming trend that many districts are disproportionately spending operating budget resources on building maintenance — taking dollars away from academic programming.
As the current and former California state superintendents of public instruction, we remain concerned with the persistent achievement gap — the disparity in academic performance between groups of students caused in part by availability of resources — that can create reverberating consequences for a child’s life. It is our responsibility to advocate for policies that help ensure every child has access to a high-quality learning environment. That is why we are both supporting the Kindergarten Through Community College Public Education Facilities Bond Act of 2016.
This initiative will invest $9 billion in school facilities by replenishing the fund that provides matching state grants to districts that have already raised local dollars. The money will go directly where it is needed: helping districts complete capital renewal projects, upgrading decaying classrooms, and providing technological upgrades, including better Internet access and well-equipped career education centers. The measure will also finance new buildings and schools to keep up with growth where needed.
While some districts can access today’s technology and offer well-maintained learning environments, too many children go to school in run-down, outdated schools. Two-thirds of our K-12 schools are more than 25 years old, and many are in need of critical upgrades to meet current health, safety and education standards, such as seismic retrofits and modernized classroom technology. But the latest data from the Center for Cities and Schools shows that districts cannot afford to go it alone and need the state to continue its role as a reliable investment partner.
This is especially true for those districts serving lower-income communities. We both have seen firsthand how the investment partnership between districts, the state and the business community has helped level the playing field for smaller and lower-wealth districts through its Financial Hardship program where eligible school districts can apply for grants that cover up to 100 percent of construction projects.
However, it’s been nearly a decade since California last replenished the account, and the funds for school improvements are depleted. As a result, there is a growing $2 billion backlog of K-12 school district applications that have been submitted for state funding with another $500 million in approved community college projects, with billions more in identified need. If the state reneges on its obligation as an investment partner, we face the prospect of returning to the days where wide differences in school district wealth resulted in uneven and unequal educational experiences.
The good news is that if voters pass the state school bond in November, we can replenish the state fund so that all eligible districts again can partner with the state and invest in creating optimal teaching and learning environments. The state’s continued participation in school facility investment is vital if we are to meet our goals of graduating all our students to be career- and college-ready and adequately preparing them to compete in a highly competitive global economy.
Tom Torlakson has served as the state superintendent of public instruction since 2011. Jack O’ Connell was the state superintendent of public instruction from 2003 to 2011.
Photo credit: Michael Short, Special to The Chronicle