Which school do you want to support?
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.
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.
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
they hold back
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."
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. California Watch created an interactive tool to make it easy to find the earthquake readiness status of each school.
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, 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.
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