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Lesson 5.9

What Does a School Look Like?

Very few schools have this, but they should.

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There's something that every school facility today should have, but that many still don't: network access that reaches every classroom. Filling that gap is going to be hard, because it costs money. When it comes to facilities, nothing is free, and in California there have been many such gaps.

How Facilities are Financed

School facilities in California, as in most states, are financed by a combination of local and state funds. The rules for raising those funds changed dramatically in 1978: when California voters passed Proposition 13, they raised the threshold for passage of school facility bonds to a 2/3 vote. The higher threshold caused investment in school facilities to plunge, despite rapid population growth.

Schools filled to overflowing, and “portables” filled the former playground areas in many schools. In 1996, legislation to reduce class sizes further increased the pressure. Some communities (especially wealthier ones) mustered the votes to pass school construction bonds, but others failed to do so. To make more intensive use of space, some overcrowded schools shifted to year-round overlapping school calendars, which proved unpopular.

55% passes a bond measure.

In 2000, voters approved Proposition 39, which gave school districts the ability to pass a school facility bond with a 55% "yes" vote. The combination of this measure and a series of four statewide general obligation bonds for school construction between 1998 and 2006 led to a boom in school construction and repair. But, being locally financed, some districts found it easier than others to raise funds.

Some conditions are unacceptable

Deplorable conditions in some schools prompted the Williams case (filed in 2000, settled in 2005), which successfully argued that California has a responsibility to provide every child a school where he or she has a reasonable opportunity to learn. The plaintiffs in this case championed measurement of health and safety factors (such as vermin or broken toilets) and disadvantages (such as missing textbooks and inexperienced teachers) in order to increase the odds that children in every school can apply their energies to learning. The expression “opportunity to learn” was used as shorthand for the connection between facilities and learning.

If schools lack
good facilities
they hold back
kids' abilities

In California, these same learning conditions must be described in each school's annual School Accountability Report Card. Basic learning conditions are also among the priorities that the state expects school districts to address and report on as part of local accountability plans beginning in 2014. Safe schools facilities include things such as lighting, temperature, safe bathrooms and playgrounds, and accessibility for handicapped persons.

Charter schools in California use widely varying facilities. Proposition 39 also required school districts to provide charter school facilities "sufficient to the charter school's needs."

The physical space

California’s public dialogue about school facilities has included plenty of local variation, but taken as a whole the main themes have been basic, such as spaces for children to learn that won't collapse in an earthquake

The way school buildings are designed makes a difference in how schooling happens. If the space is divided into uniform-size classrooms that hold about 30 students it’s likely that’s how instruction will be organized. Some programs, such as laboratory science and performing arts, require spaces for rehearsals and performance. PE programs are strongly influenced by facilities: a school with access only to paved spaces for recreation will emphasize basketball, but a school with ready access to a grass field might offer more soccer.

Facilities are rarely a school's highest priority, unless there is an acute problem. Context matters. In Kenya, a successful network of schools called Bridge International is growing by leaps and bounds with schools of very basic construction, sufficient to the context of their use.

The New Facilities Gap: Digital Infrastructure

The new, essential element of a school facility is digital infrastructure. The context for California's schools is changing quickly. Internet connectivity is enormously valuable for instruction, research and homework. But many schools remain substantially off the grid. This is a facility problem, and since investments in facilities tend to happen only occasionally, in connection with passage of a bond measure, California schools are falling far behind in terms of digital access.

The direction of change is obvious; only its pace is in question.

As always with things that cost money, schools in higher-wealth communities tend to be ahead of those serving lower-wealth communities. At the national level, the FCC's E-rate program tries to bridge this divide, but its resources are limited. Some school districts are moving faster than others to make digital readiness part of their facilities plan. San Diego's i21 Interactive Classroom initiative stands out as an example that started earlier than most. In 2009 the district began a five-year bond-funded project to make wireless internet access reach every corner of every room of every school - and, crucially, the place of residence of every student. It also invested in training for teachers, so that they could use the new tools effectively.

The role of technology in education is changing quickly, a topic that will be explored further in Lesson 6.6. There remains plenty of disagreement about how and when computers and devices should be used, but hardly anyone would argue anymore that schools should be "off the grid." Many schools have spotty, slow or missing internet access, and most districts don't know for certain where their facilities have "dead zones." Many students' families have access to web services, but not all. The direction of change is obvious; only its pace is in question.

When you walk into a school, the buildings might not be the first thing you notice: it might be the kids. What are they wearing? The next lesson explores the evidence about uniforms as an element of a school environment.

Updated July 2017


Upgrading the facilities of a school (for example to add digital infrastructure or to improve earthquake readiness) is often financed by a bond measure on the local ballot. What is required for such a bond measure to pass?

Answer the question correctly and earn a ticket.
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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Carol Kocivar September 2, 2018 at 4:14 pm
How safe is the drinking water at your school?
The state of California has required community water systems to conduct lead sampling of drinking water in all public K-12 schools by July 2019. Check this interactive map to find out how your school is doing.
user avatar
nkbird August 10, 2018 at 12:38 pm
Parents at our school had to file a "Williams complaint" about insufficient restrooms when the number of students at the site almost doubled in 5 years. Now I know where the "Williams" part comes from.
user avatar
Jeff Camp May 18, 2018 at 11:52 am
In contrast to states like New York or Massachusetts, California's population has grown rapidly, overwhelming the capacity of schools. Districts have responded by rolling in mobile units, often displacing playground space or parking areas. In LA Unified nearly a third of classroom seats are in aging portable classrooms originally intended as temporary spaces.
user avatar
Angelica Manriquez February 29, 2016 at 5:11 pm
I don't think is a good idea to have WiFi on school premises because it distracts students from their academics. They can use that money to give more training to teaches, or buy more computers.
user avatar
Robert Crowell May 4, 2018 at 9:10 am
I would have to respectfully disagree. Without access to the internet computer are just glorified typewriters. Students live in a digital world. The key is teaching students to be good digital citizens.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar - Ed100 February 17, 2015 at 3:36 pm
The Legislative Analyst's Office is taking a close look at how the state funds facilities in a new report.
It recommends replacing the state's current financing with a new system:
(1) establish an annualized "expected facility cost" based on the replacement cost of existing school buildings;
(2) provide an annual per-student grant that reflects a specified minimum state share of cost;
(3) adjust the grant for differences in local resources;
(4) adjust the grant during the transition period for prior state investments in school facilities;
(5) provide one-time funding to address the existing backlog of school facility projects; and (6) require grant recipients to adopt five-year facility accountability plans.
This report is available at
user avatar
Carol Kocivar - Ed100 December 4, 2014 at 12:51 pm
How California finances school facilities looks to be a lively topic. Here is one perspective from the LAO back in 2001:
"Just as the state funds school support budgets on an ongoing basis, the state should appropriate a reliable amount of funding on an annual basis to pay a share of school capital outlay programs. This action would greatly improve district capacity to plan and implement local capital outlay programs on a timely and cost."
©2003-2018 Jeff Camp
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