Study says state bond measure should refocus discussion of school construction funding

Handling the needs of California's K-12 schools for new schools, maintenance and repairs is a complex problem due in part to a longstanding problem of underfunding, according to a new report. (iStock photo.)

Handling the needs of California’s K-12 schools for new schools, maintenance and repairs is a complex problem due in part to a longstanding problem of underfunding, according to a new report. (iStock photo.)

Proposition 51, a Nov. 8 statewide bond measure to provide $7 billion for construction and modernization of California’s K-12 public schools, should be the beginning, not the end, of a new discussion about how to best fund K-12 school facilities across the state, says a new UC Berkeley study.

Authors of the report illustrate how the measure offers voters the choice of raising desperately needed state funds to help school districts upgrade and construct new school buildings, or continuing to have school districts bear these costs on their own – which many cannot. In either case, they stress that California needs a long-term, balanced solution to the complicated problem of how to ensure adequate and equitable K-12 school facilities for all children, while being affordable to taxpayers.

The study, “Building Pressure: Modeling the Fiscal Future of California K-12 School Facilities,” comes from UC Berkeley’s Center for Cities and Schools a month before Election Day. (Go to http://citiesandschools.berkeley.edu for the full report.)

For several years, CCS has been analyzing issues surrounding the state’s school construction and modernization needs, finding a longstanding underinvestment in school facilities in many districts, particularly in low-wealth communities. Such underinvestment elevates student health and safety risks for the California’s 6 million K-12 students, means many facilities do not adequately support their education programs and potentially leads to more costly repairs.

In their latest study, center researchers Jeff Vincent and Liz Jain find that rejecting the statewide bond measure would mean further underinvestment in facilities and wide disparities in facility quality from district to district. They say that the consequences would be disproportionately borne by the state’s poorest children, as students in districts with the lowest quintile of property wealth would see a facility funding gap nearly three times wider than children attending districts in the wealthiest quintile.

“Industry benchmarks suggest the state’s K-12 school districts should spend nearly $18 billion a year to maintain their inventory, ensure buildings are up-to-date, and to build new spaces to handle enrollment growth,” says the report. “Actual spending often falls far below this level.”

The implications of this gap are “achingly tangible,” say Vincent and Jain, and extend well beyond problems like leaking roofs, deteriorating walls and poorly lit or overcrowded spaces. Additional potential impacts include increased asthma, higher absenteeism, lower academic performance, higher suspension rates, more negative teacher attitudes, lower teacher retention, lower neighborhood home prices and decreased community pride.

If approved, Vincent and Jain say that Prop. 51 funds will no doubt whittle down much-needed immediate K-12 school construction and modernization needs across the state.

But, the researchers conclude that the bond measure before voters this fall is not the most adequate, equitable or cost-effective option available for school facility funding. They advise that regardless of Prop. 51’s fate, the public and state lawmakers should consider other policies to enhance local flexibility, target resources more effectively, improve predictability and reduce inequities caused by varying district wealth.

Jain and Vincent came up with four school facility funding scenarios for consideration by both voters and policymakers:

  • Reject Prop. 51, providing no state support at all
  • Re-establish competitive state grants for construction and modernization (with funds from the passing of Proposition 51)
  • Approve a small state role with about $3 billion in funding and targeting high-need school districts
  • Or set up an equity-focused state grant formula that adjust for districts’ relative wealth to equalize ability to fund capital expenses on an annual basis.

Vincent, deputy director of the Center for Cities and Schools, and Jain, a recent graduate of the Goldman School of Public Policy, estimate available facility funding resources for each of the state’s 1,000-plus school districts under each scenario, assess relative impacts in ensuring sufficient investment in all school buildings and access to full facilities funding, and explore legal concerns and affordability.

They conclude that state programs with a limited – but targeted – state role and greater flexibility around local facilities spending can improve overall adequacy at lower cost to the state, while a larger program equalizing resources on an annual basis most reduces disparities between high- and low-wealth districts at a higher cost to state taxpayers.

Absent these sorts of substantial shifts in how K-12 school facilities are funded, new resources like those provided by Prop. 51 can chip away at unmet needs but will fail to address the full scale of the facility funding gaps that California schools face, they note.

Without financial help from the state, it is up to public school districts to find local funds to fix aging schools or build new ones, and that’s easier for wealthier districts with higher property values and tax revenues to do than for poorer ones.

“In the absence of state funding, many districts have begun taking matters into their own hands,” observe Vincent and Jain, pointing out that voters were presented in 2014 with a record 113 local bond measures for a total of $11.6 billion for school construction. And this November, there are 180 school bond measures on local ballots totaling more than $24 billion across the state.

For example, they cite announcement by officials with the San Juan Unified School District outside of Sacramento of deferred maintenance and repair needs surpassing $140 million that would take 28 years to accomplish based on the district’s current budget. And Los Angeles Unified recently reported that it will cost $40 billion to make needed modifications for all of its schools, 10 times the amount of money currently allotted.

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