- Unified School District 377 in rural Kansas is facing a facilities dilemma: Aging school buildings need renovations and its central office's heating system stopped working, but multiple attempts to raise local taxes to fund maintenance work have failed, and the last successful bond campaign was in 1974, according to The Hechinger Report.
- The problem reflects a nationwide trend, as districts spend roughly $46 billion less each year than is needed to maintain “healthy and safe” school facilities, a 2016 report by the 21st Century School Fund revealed. A February House education committee hearing also explored this issue, finding poorer districts often face more challenges in raising money through bonds than wealthier districts do, The Hechinger Report notes.
- Though states usually pay for some school construction costs, nearly half contribute less than 10% to district capital funding needs, relying on local school districts to make up the balance. However, the difference between the tax base in wealthy and poor districts means that funding for school facilities under the current system is “inherently and persistently inequitable,” according to the 21st Century School Fund report.
By now, most states have returned to pre-recession per-pupil spending rates. However, many state school funding formulas are still inequitiable, leading to gaps between more and less affluent school districts across the nation.
Many districts are funded largely through local taxes, and wealthier districts not only have a larger tax base to begin with, but they also have an easier time raising taxes or passing local bonds for school construction needs. Poorer districts, on the other hand, likely need this money more but have a harder time getting it.
Improving school facilities and programs are one the best ways to attract economic development, but the lack of resources to improve education continues to hold communities back. In the end, many students from poor districts learn in subpar facilities, while their counterparts in wealthier districts are learning in better ones. This often spurs racial inequity and concerns of racial segregation — a recent report released by EdBuild found non-white districts received $23 billion dollars less than predominately white districts, despite serving the same number of students.
One potential solution, which is sparking debate in California, is issuing school construction bonds at the state level, rather than at the local level, and giving priority to low-income districts when the money is distributed. Having the state handle more of the school construction funding helps spread the cost of helping low-income districts over a larger tax base.
Some states that have placed more of the capital funding needs on local districts, but a report released in March by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calls for states to increase their investments in infrastructure, including public school facilities, as a strategy for economic growth. The increase in funds available to states now allows them to reconsider their priorities, and school funding is becoming one of the most discussed issues in many legislative sessions.
Other states resorted to “sin taxes,” such as lottery funding or taxes on legal marijuana sales to help fund school needs. But the answer may lie in more community involvement as well as increased state funding. A new federal bill introduced last month could encourage more public-private partnerships if it passes, as these projects would qualify for federal tax-exempt status.