Fiscal, Demographic, and Performance Data on California’s K-12 Schools

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School Facilities in California

For many years, particularly through the 1990s, public schools in California faced a serious facilities crisis.


For many years, particularly through the 1990s, public schools in California faced a serious facilities crisis. The number of students was increasing, many schools were overcrowded, and an alarming number of buildings needed renovation and modernization.

Although these conditions still exist in many places, the state in recent years has made dramatic strides to increase the funds available for improving facilities, helped considerably by the support of California voters. However, most of those state funds have been spent, and facility needs are continuing to grow.

What California Has Done To Meet Its School Facility Needs

Local communities and the state as a whole have been investing more in school facilities. State support, which in recent years has accounted for about half of funding for school facilities, comes from the passage of voter-approved state bonds. Since 1998, four state bonds have passed, raising $35.4 billion in funds. However, there has not been a bond election since 2006, and the accumulated funds from the four bonds have dwindled to only about $400 million in 2013.

Local revenue sources include general obligation bonds for construction and reconstruction, plus developer fees assessed on real estate developers when they undertake new projects. Local bond elections, which often failed to reach the required two-thirds vote, have passed more easily since an option for a 55% vote was approved in November 2000, with added financial and performance accountability requirements. Districts can now choose to seek either 55% or two-thirds voter approval, the latter with fewer accountability requirements. Of the 757 elections held under the 55% option between 2001 and November 2013, 82.4% passed. The approval rate is lower (55%) for the 941 districts that requested the two-thirds vote.

California Still Needs More School Buildings

Educators and political leaders from both parties agree that California must have a steady supply of new school buildings to meet the current and projected need. That need arises from growth in the student population, aging facilities, and changes in educational programs.

California will need an infusion of $117 billion during the next decade, with close to half of the funding needed to replace or repair existing buildings, according to a 2012 report by the UC-Berkeley Center for Cities and Schools. The report, which was commissioned by the California Department of Education, calls for:

  • $53 billion for replacing and restoring schools that have exceeded their service life, including eliminating the 75,000 portables still being used throughout the state;
  • $36 billion for new construction, including $12 billion to address enrollment growth and/or crowding;
  • $28 billion for modernization of existing facilities, which includes upgrades for modern technology use, and equipment for science classes and career and technical education programs.

The California Department of Finance estimates that enrollments, which declined during the recession, will grow by 1.4% to reach nearly 6.3 million students in 2021-22.

The impact of changes in enrollment varies by district. Although school districts such as Los Angeles Unified, Mt. Diablo Unified, and Saddleback Valley Unified are declining, others such as Clovis Unified, San Jose Unified, and Fremont Unified are growing and may need bigger facilities.

The new push for smaller classes may also strain school facilities. Under the new Local Control Funding Formula school finance system, the state is offering a financial incentive to California’s districts to reduce (over eight years) their kindergarten through third grade class sizes to 24 students. This could have a profound impact on facilities in many districts that had abandoned the earlier class size reduction program (20 students to 1 teacher) during the recession.

Schools Require Maintenance and Modernization

More than two-thirds of California’s public school buildings are more than 25 years old. Due to the age of the buildings and, in some cases, poor maintenance, many schools need repair. In addition, a major investment is essential to enable schools to use computers and other technology as part of their instructional program.

School districts are also required to comply with a variety of federal mandates. These include removing safety hazards, such as asbestos and radon, and making schools accessible to disabled people, as required by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Facilities Play a Part in Educational Quality

In what ways does a school facility either enhance or inhibit student performance? And what implications do new education reform strategies have on how schools should be designed? As communities continue to design and build new facilities—in California and nationally—researchers, policymakers, and school planners are addressing these two important questions.

Facilities Directly Affect Student Achievement

Research evidence and common sense indicate that there is a minimum level of quality for a school facility below which student and teacher effectiveness can be seriously compromised. Various studies show that students achieve less in school buildings that are situated on noisy streets, have too many students for their capacity, or cannot be adequately and safely maintained. A lawsuit brought by a consortium of plaintiffs (Williams v. State of California) charged, successfully, that the state has not fulfilled its constitutional role of providing an appropriate educational environment. Subsequent legislation provided $800 million for repairs to school buildings and imposed accountability measures for low-performing schools.

Some researchers also believe that smaller is better, both in terms of class size and school size. And although there is no universal agreement about the optimum size for a school, researchers suggest that student achievement would be improved if schools were smaller than they are now in California. The challenge for school districts is that smaller is also more expensive to operate.

School Reform Calls For New School Designs

Many experts on school reform and school facilities see a fundamental mismatch between how schools need to operate in the 21st century and the buildings most schools now occupy. Existing school facilities have become obstacles to educational improvement, these experts contend.

Schools need enough room to allow students to move around, areas designed for special activities such as science labs and library/media centers, and space in which to display and store student projects. Despite the recent attention to school buildings, such space is still missing in many California schools.