State and local construction spending for education slipped by more than 25 percent from January 2009 to June 2012, its annual rate dropping more than $22 billion, according to a Governing analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Commerce, one of the steepest declines in state and local investment among individual sectors.
Primary and secondary education has taken the biggest hit: state and local construction spending has dropped from an annual rate of $58.6 billion in January 2009 to $37 billion in June 2012, a 37 percent decrease. Higher education construction spending has been more stable, dipping slightly from an annual rate of $23.9 billion in January 2009 to $23 billion in June 2012.
The obvious culprit is the economic downturn and its residual impact on state and local budgets. Overall government construction spending reached a nearly seven-year low in May 2012 at an annual rate of $242.6 billion, the lowest mark since November 2006. Policy analysts also point to two additional factors: voters are less likely to approve school construction bonds while the economy is struggling, and education construction saw a boom during the previous decade that inevitably slowed down.
While no comprehensive data on school construction bond requests has been compiled, analysts point to Portland, Ore., a city that has routinely approved such spending for years, but rejected a ballot initiative in May 2011. School officials asked for a $548 million bond to upgrade the area’s education facilities (coupled with the promise of 2,500 jobs), according to Ballotpedia, but it was soundly defeated with more than 60 percent voting against it. According to the California School Boards Association, construction bonds passed at a 75 percent clip in 2011—still good, the group noted, but below a historic average above 80 percent.
As for evidence of an evaporating boom, a 2012 analysis by School Planning & Management observed that spending on school construction hit record levels between 2000 and mid-2007. In addition, according to that analysis, spending on new construction started to dip in mid-2009, while spending on less costly additions or renovations remained steady—another potential explanation for the overall decline.
“What shifted with the recession is we had more renovations and additions, but fewer new construction projects,” says Judy Marks, director of the National Clearinghouse of Education Facilities. “In a lot of places, we’ve already come close to meeting their facility needs.”
Still, some do see a cause for concern. While cuts more directly tied to instruction, such as teacher layoffs, are most concerning to education advocates, there is a need for quality facilities. For example, in a recent lawsuit that accused a Michigan school district and the state with failing to provide a quality education, the ACLU included unsanitary facilities in their list of grievances and charged the district and state to provide a clean and safe learning environment.
On a broader scale, a recent study by the State Educational Technology Directors Association found that nearly 80 percent of K-12 schools say their current broadband Internet capabilities are inadequate—a problem that the report's authors argued would be rectified with greater investment in new and improved facilities.
“A lack of infrastructure spending does have an effect on the quality of learning environments,” says Deborah Rigsby, director of federal legislation at the National School Boards Association. “We have to be sure that students have access to modern technology.”
Both Marks and Rigsby credited federal stimulus funding, which included more than $8 billion in qualified school construction bonds for 2010 and 2011, with easing the impact of the recession on school infrastructure as state and local spending dropped. But that money expired more than a year ago, and there has been no evidence that Congress will funnel any additional money to supplement state and local investments. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) introduced the Fix America’s Schools Today Act last September, which would have provided $25 billion for primary school renovation and modernization, but it hasn’t been acted on since.
In an email exchange with Governing, an aide to Brown acknowledged that “its chances of moving forward are slim” because the bill has not attracted any Republican co-sponsors. The aide said that, in internal deliberations, GOP Senators have complained about the legislation’s costs, similar to their public opposition to President Barack Obama’s American Jobs Act, which also included money for school construction.
Given the current political environment, analysts say states and localities shouldn’t expect any new federal support for the foreseeable future.
“It’s consistently been a hard sell to get anything passed related to school construction,” Marks says. “Yes, it would be great. But it just can’t pass.”