You Earned a Ticket!

Which school do you want to support?

Lesson 5.9

What Does a School Look Like?

Very few schools have this, but they should.

hero image

School systems require facilities: buildings, desks, networks, labs, performance spaces, practice spaces and the like. These spaces need to be safe, sufficiently spacious, and equipped with the right stuff. Nothing is free, and in California there have been many gaps.

How School Facilities are Financed

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

The language used to describe bonds can be confusing: when school districts "sell" or "issue" bonds to "raise money" what they are really doing is borrowing money. Just like a mortgage, money borrowed with a bond must be paid for over time, with interest. Investors lend money to school districts as a business transaction: they make a little money on the deal. The specific rules (the "structure") of a bond can vary, including the amount borrowed, what the money may be used for, the interest rate, and the timing of when money changes hands. Voters approve bond debts through measures that appear on the ballot. The debt is paid using taxes collected from property owners based on the assessed value of their property. In most cases, a citizen oversight committee is created to ensure that the funds are used for their intended purpose.

The costs related to the purchase, construction or modernization of school facilities are known as "capital" expenses. These costs are accounted for in a way that spreads out the expense over time. Capital expenses are a significant aspect of the overall cost of education, but they are handled and reported separately from the normal day-to-day "operating" expenses.

Changing Rules about school bonds

Rules and limits for raising funds locally for school construction were established in California's constitution in 1871. The rules have changed significantly over time, and there have been successive booms and busts in school facilities investment. The state began playing a role in the funding of school facilities in California generations ago, with passage of the Field Act in 1933. In the post-Sputnik 1950s and '60s, the rapidly-growing state began issuing bonds to encourage and support the building of new public school facilities. In the 1970s the state began addressing the aging of those no-longer-new buildings with programs to support school modernization and earthquake readiness.

The most well-known change in the finance of school facilities happened 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. The higher threshold contributed to a plunge in investment in construction and maintenance of school facilities, even as rapid population growth increased the number of students.

Schools filled to overflowing, and inexpensive “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 contributed to a boom in school construction and repair. Some districts found it easier than others to raise funds, but a series of state bond measures helped to support the work in higher-poverty districts. The stock market climbed, and sunshine warmed California schools. Then...

Fickle Fairness in Facility Funding

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, Financing School Facilities in California, concludes that the impact of bond financing policies for schools in California has routinely advantaged communities best able to pay, to the detriment of the school districts where students need the most help. The report suggests ways in which California lawmakers could address this inequitable variation.

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” came to be 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 school districts must report on as part of their Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP). 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.

The Digital Facilities Gap

One essential element of a school facility is digital infrastructure. 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, to reach 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
Updated extensively October 2018


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.
Learn More

Questions & Comments

To comment or reply, please sign in .

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."
©2003-2021 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