You Earned a Ticket!

Which school do you want to support?

Lesson 5.9

School Facilities:
What Should a School Look Like?

The Pandemic taught us new priorities

hero image

Schools require facilities for learning, including classrooms, labs, performance spaces, practice spaces, parking spaces, storage spaces, and ventilation (HVAC) systems.

The Pandemic demonstrated that schools also need good digital facilities including networks, computers, screens, software, and the knowhow to use them. These virtual and physical spaces need to be safe, sufficiently spacious, and equipped with the right equipment, from heat pumps to firewalls. Nothing is free, and in California there have been many gaps.

This lesson explores the essential elements of education infrastructure: technology, buildings, and equipment. It also summarizes the policies and financial structures (especially bonds and property taxes) that make schools possible. Finally, this lesson examines the impacts of aging school facilities on inequality and the climate.

First, let there be technology

Until the COVID Pandemic closed schools in 2020, most people thought of the core infrastructure of a school as its buildings. Wood and concrete. Technology was seen as optional, or even distracting. It's hard to fully grasp the scale of the change. Back then, it was regarded as tolerable for the digital infrastructure of education to be flaky and cheap. The digital divide was something to be "narrowed," not eliminated — implicitly signaling that digital devices and connectivity were merely desirable.

Today, the essential core of an educational facility is its ability to ensure reliable connections between students and teachers, whether in person or remotely as necessary.

The core infrastructure of learning is digital.

When students and teachers returned to in-person learning in 2021, most school buildings were just as cramped and stuffy as they had been before the crisis began. To update them will cost many billions of dollars and take years. In comparison, fixing the unequal digital infrastructure of education ought to be the quick and cheap part. But the job is far from done.

Is the Digital Divide in education ending?

During the pandemic, the federal budget supported digital access for all students. Continued funding is at risk.

During the Pandemic, the federal government supported universal access to digital connectivity in each student's home through the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). This enabled teachers to use digital teaching tools and assign digital homework with confidence that their students could access it. As of this writing in 2024, continued funding for ACP is at risk.

Reliable, trustworthy connectivity is central to the US Department of Education's 2024 National Educational Technology Plan, which calls for closing the digital divides in "Access, Design and Use."

Digital data? No, just guesses.

It's important to acknowledge what we don't know about the real internet access conditions that students and teachers experience on a day to day basis. Certainly, some school sites have reliable bottom-up data about network uptime, performance, usage, and dead zones. Some of this data might flow to districts, but educations systems don't collect real data about it. When it comes to digital infrastructure, the Department of Education can only make educated guesses based on surveys.

One positive milestone for the shift to digital platforms in education is the College Board's 2024 decision to ditch the #2 pencil. This implies that each participating high school has reliable access — at least in the testing room on testing day.

The physical space of school facilities

There are about 10,000 public schools in California, including some truly enormous buildings. The campus of Granada Hills Charter School is so big the school website features an aerial tour.

Many of California's school buildings are old, and they were built quickly and cheaply to keep up with rapid population growth and sprawl. Some were built to obsolete standards. Much of California’s public dialogue about school facilities has focused on safety, like removing lead and asbestos, and ensuring that buildings don't collapse in an earthquake.

Design has consequences

When schools are renovated, design choices affect how learning happens. For example, if the space is divided into 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. A school with ready access to a grass field might offer soccer.

Heating and cooling facilities in schools

In the Ed100 blog
How can schools battle climate change?

School buildings have to be comfortable for students to learn and educators to teach. Every few decades, schools need to replace their old HVAC systems. It's a significant capital expense, and a fateful one from the perspective of climate impact. If a school chooses a system that runs on gas, it might be stuck paying for fossil fuels for a long time. A system that runs on electricity, such as a heat pump, has the potential to be powered by sunshine or other renewable energy. UndauntedK12, a nonprofit organization, helps districts consider their options, including ways to make replacing an HVAC system into a learning opportunity.

Some facilities are unacceptable

California schools must provide every child a reasonable opportunity to learn. This principle gained the force of law in California through the 2005 settlement of what's commonly known as the Williams case. The plaintiffs in this case documented major disparities in health and safety factors (such as vermin or broken toilets) and academic disadvantages (such as missing textbooks and inexperienced teachers). The settlement required these disadvantages to be addressed in order to increase the odds that children in every school can apply their energies to learning. The expression opportunity to learn came to be used as shorthand for the connection between facilities and learning.

In California, the learning conditions identified in the Williams settlement must be described in the annual School Accountability Report Card of each school and the Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) of each district. Safe school facilities include things such as lighting, temperature, safe bathrooms and playgrounds, and accessibility for handicapped persons.

Who pays for school facilities?

To build or renovate schools, districts raise money through property taxes, which are based on the assessed value of property like homes and commercial buildings.

Costs related to the purchase, construction or modernization of school facilities are known as capital expenses. Capital expenses are a significant aspect of the overall cost of education, but they are handled and reported separately from normal day-to-day operating expenses. Following standard accounting practices, capital assets in school systems — like buildings, equipment, and heat pumps — are accounted for in a way that spreads their cost over time. Whereas operating expenses pay for things that are gone once spent, like a day of teacher salary, capital expenses pay for assets — stuff that stays valuable for a while and depreciates in value over time as it wears out.

Like homeowners who borrow to buy or upgrade a home, school districts generally borrow to build, buy or upgrade facilities. Unlike homeowners, instead of borrowing from a bank, school districts borrow using bonds.

California has occasionally established state matching funds that contribute toward the costs of school construction, renovation and modernization. A statewide bond measure for school construction failed in 2020, in part because of awful timing: voters were in shock and fear about the freshly-declared pandemic.

How do school bonds work?

The language used to describe school bonds can be confusing: when school districts sell or issue bonds, what they are really doing is borrowing money. Just like a mortgage, money borrowed with a bond must be paid back over time, with interest.

You might be wondering: School facilities always wear out over time. It's inevitable, right? Why spend money on interest payments? Couldn't school districts just save up in anticipation of future facilities needs? By doing so they would earn interest on the money saved and have more to spend. It's possible for school districts to do this, and some do. But it doesn't often happen.

Imagine yourself as a school board member and consider the politics: Bond financing is fairly easy to get, especially if your district is well-run. It's standard practice. Saving for future facilities means saying "no" to real, current needs. Passing a bond increases taxes, which brings in new money. Your term on the board is short, your constituents are clamoring for action, and financing is available. Oh, and there's a chance that future board members would spend the money you save in ways you disagree with. It's too hard.

Investors buy school facility bonds as a business transaction. They make money on the deal. The specific rules for each bond (its structure) can vary, including the amount borrowed, what the money may be used for, the interest rate, the timing of when money changes hands, and more. The price of the bond varies on the credit-worthiness of school district. The debt is paid using future taxes collected from property owners based on the assessed value of their property.

How is a bond measure passed?

School boards have the power to place a bond measure on the local ballot. If voters in the district pass it, property owners in the district pay for the principal and interest over time. Passage requires at least 55% of votes cast. In most cases, the measure also creates a citizen oversight committee to ensure that the funds are used for their intended purpose. Mistakes can be costly.

California voters established many of the rules that govern the financing of school facilities by passing Proposition 39 in 2000. The main priority of this measure was to dramatically lower the threshold to pass bonds for school construction and renovation, from 2/3 of votes to 55%. There's more to it, of course.

Why do school bonds in California require 55% to pass?

Some background is useful. California's constitution established rules and limits for raising funds locally for school construction in 1871. There have been booms and busts in school facilities investment over time, with changing rules. The state began playing a role in the funding of school facilities 1933 with passage of the Field Act, which established building standards for schools. In the post-Sputnik 1950s and '60s, the state began issuing bonds to encourage and support the building of new public school facilities, especially in rapidly-growing districts. In the 1970s the state helped districts address the aging of their no-longer-new buildings with programs to support school modernization and earthquake readiness.

Funding for school facilities collapsed in 1978, when California voters passed Proposition 13. This measure raised the threshold for passage of local school facility bonds from a majority to a 2/3 vote, making them very hard to pass. Investment in construction and maintenance of school facilities plunged, even as rapid population growth increased the number of students. By the 1990s, very few school bond measures were even attempted.

Schools filled to overflowing. To provide classroom space, inexpensive portables (trailers) were rolled onto former playgrounds and school parking lots. In 1996, legislation required schools to reduce class sizes, which 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.

Required: 55% supermajority vote

In 2000, voters approved Proposition 39, a complex ballot measure designed to help address the problem. Crucially, the measure gave school districts the ability to pass local school facility bond measures with a 55% supermajority of "yes" votes. The measure was a compromise that addressed many competing priorities. Local school bond measures boomed, as shown in the chart below.

Separately, voters approved a series of four statewide general obligation bonds for school construction between 1998 and 2006. The combination of local and state funding led to a boom in school construction and renovation.

Facilities for public charter schools

Public schools in California can be governed and financed in two ways: as traditional public district schools or as public charter schools. (For much more about charter schools, see Lesson 5.5.) In either case, students have a right to adequate facilities for learning.

Proposition 39 was a crucial policy for charter public schools in California. As part of the compromise that enabled the measure to pass, it established in law that property taxes paid by residents of a school district support all public schools, not just the traditional ones. The law explicitly requires school districts to make space for charter schools:

“Each school district shall make available, to each charter school operating in the school district, facilities sufficient for the charter school to accommodate all of the charter school’s in-district students in conditions reasonably equivalent to those in which the students would be accommodated if they were attending other public schools of the district. Facilities provided shall be contiguous, furnished, and equipped, and shall remain the property of the school district.”

In the decades following passage of Proposition 39, families gradually enrolled their children in charter schools in increasing numbers, partly in response to growing evidence that students tend to do a little better in these schools. To accommodate demand, some charter schools rented space in commercial buidings. Others, especially in areas with declining enrollment, took advantage of the provisions of Prop 39, demanding reasonably equivalent space from underenrolled school districts.

Some school districts, notably Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), responded by co-locating charter public schools in underutilized facilities also used by traditional public schools. In 2024, the board of LAUSD directed its staff to avoid complying with Prop 39 in a way that involves such co-locations, especially for schools that disproportionately serve Black students. (The district has separately directed funds to such schools, but in a way that excluded charter schools.) The policy prompted a high-profile legal challenge from the California Charter Schools Association.

Traditional public schools and charter public schools compete for enrollment, so some level of tension isn't surprising. When possible, charter school leaders tend to look for alternative, separate locations that work for the communities they are trying to serve. The problem, of course, is money. Facilities are expensive, and charter schools strain to raise funds.

Bonds are an important financial tool for charter schools, and a sizable network of experts, banks, and lawyers has developed to advise them.

Are school facilities bonds fair?

When the market swoons, school funding crumbles, especially including funds for facilities. According to research conducted as part of the 2018 the Getting Down to Facts II set of studies, the Great Recession undermined state bond funding for school facilities, especially "in districts with larger shares of disadvantaged or nonwhite students."

The report concluded that bond financing policies for schools in California have routinely worked to the disadvantage of poorer communities. Bond measures are complex, and don't happen very often. Districts have a lot to figure out, which means they have to hire expert help. Someone needs to write the measure, review it, publicize it, and campaign for it — all of which costs money and takes time. The report suggests ways in which California lawmakers could address this inequitable variation. Another state bond fund measure is expected on the ballot in 2024. A coalition of non-profit organizations threatened to sue the state unless it adopts a fairer system.

Updated April 2024


What vote is required to pass a school bond measure?

Answer the question correctly and earn a ticket.
Learn More

Questions & Comments

To comment or reply, please sign in .

user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder January 24, 2024 at 1:14 am
Intriguing big-data study quantifies the payback of spending on school facilities, showing largest benefit for areas of low socioeconomic status. "What Works and For Whom? Effectiveness and Efficiency of School Capital Investments Across The U.S." by Barbara Biasi, Julien M. Lafortune & David Schönholzer.
tl;dr : to boost learning fix the AC. To raise home values spend on athletic facilities.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar May 23, 2022 at 11:48 pm
How California can improve equity in facilities funding from PPIC.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder August 26, 2019 at 12:14 pm
The condition of school facilities has an impact on student learning according to a roundup of research by schoolfinance101: School Facilities Matter (how could they not?). Quality of school facilities affects local communities' quality of life, too.
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
Susannah Baxendale January 25, 2019 at 4:29 pm
I agree with Robert, as long as the students are being taught how to research online, assess the value of different sites, etc, and are also given assignments that make meaningful use of internet resources. As some students have to go to public libraries to do their research, the last thing you want is silly assignments/make-work assignments which add to the stress for these students to no good purpose.
user avatar
Brenda Etterbeek June 29, 2019 at 1:44 pm
I also agree that our school should have wifi. At our elementary school, we have laptops for our classes to do research and testing. With no wifi, that couldn't happen. And, there are security walls on the wifi...I am not able to access certain app platforms from my phone (which is connected to the school wifi).
user avatar
Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh November 7, 2019 at 9:17 pm
It’s interesting to note that some of the most privileged communities do not want Wi-Fi in the schools because they are afraid of radio wave exposure for the children.
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."
©2003-2024 Jeff Camp
Design by SimpleSend

Sharing is caring!

Password Reset

Change your mind? Sign In.

Search all lesson and blog content here.

Welcome Back!

Login with Email

We will send your Login Link to your email
address. Click on the link and you will be
logged into Ed100. No more passwords to

Share via Email

Get on Board!
Learn how California's School System works so you can make a difference.
Our free lessons are short, easy to read, and up to date. Each lesson you complete earns a ticket for your school. You could win $1,000 for your PTA.

Join Ed100

Already a member? Login

Or Create Account