School Building Funding – Fifty Years After Little Rock

September 26, 2007

by Claris Olson, HSC Environmental Health Specialist

This week marks the 50th anniversary of federal troops’ arrival in Little Rock, Ark., to ensure equity in education for nine African American students.  Sadly, so many years later, huge disparities in public school construction funding still exist. The fact that such tremendous disparities persist is, in a word, shameful.

This lack of adequate school construction funding has resulted in a situation where students in low income and minority communities spend their days in deteriorating buildings that adversely impact not only the students’ learning, but also their health and the health of the staff and teachers who work in their schools.

Two organizations, The 21st Century School Fund and Critical Exposures, have done an excellent job of highlighting these disparities in very different ways. Both point to the need for federal and state policies to narrow this gap.

The 21st Century School Fund formed a group of local and national organizations, Building Educational Success Together (BEST), to investigate and research this issue.  Their findings are well documented in the report Growth and Disparity: A Decade of U.S. Public School Construction [pdf].

The study found that in spite of unprecedented spending and growth in school facility construction across the country, the money spent has not been distributed equitably.  Specifically, the report confirmed what many people have presumed all along:

  • The money spent on schools serving low-income students was more likely to fund basic repairs, such as new roofs or asbestos removal, while schools in more affluent districts were more likely to receive funds for educational enhancements such as science labs;
  • The lowest investment ($4,140 per student) was made in the poorest communities while the highest investment ($11,500 per student) was made in the high income communities;
  • School districts with predominately minority student enrollment spent the least ($5,172 per student), while school districts with predominantly white student enrollment spent the most ($7,102 per student).

If you have never seen one of the schools affected by the worst of these funding disparities, you can take a virtual tour through Critical Exposures’ gallery.  Here you will see the same issue through the camera lens of the students. 

The pictures speak for themselves.  Most of us would never dream of working in buildings like these, yet so many of our nation’s children are spending their days in them.  When and if the children graduate, they are expected to compete with students who have attended state-of-the-art schools in affluent communities.

If we want all students in this country to achieve academically and participate in civic life, then we must provide them with the buildings, teachers and resources to do so. 

Eliminating the disparities in school building quality should be an integral part of closing the achievement gap, and should be an explicit objective of state and federal educational law, including No Child Left Behind and other funding sources.