Apr 12, 2019

The Need for Federal Funding for Public School Facilities

BASIC Vision: 

A modest federal role in public school infrastructure that builds state and local capacity to address unhealthy, unsafe, inadequate and inequitable public school facilities in the lowest wealth and highest need districts.


By Mary Filardo

Our nation’s 100,000 schools are the second largest U.S. infrastructure investment, after roads and bridges. Every weekday, 56 million children and adults — 1 in 6 of all Americans — set foot in a public school. They provide our nation’s children with a learning environment essential to their achievement and to the productivity of working parents and guardians serving as anchors in our communities.

Public School Funding Breakdown

States and school districts together spent about $1 trillion (2014$) on school construction capital outlay from fiscal year 1994 through 2013.  The federal support for school facilities was less than one percent of this amount — mostly from FEMA to rebuild public schools destroyed by natural disasters. States provided widely varying levels of funding. Twelve states contributed no capital funding for local school district facilities, but on average, states contributed eighteen percent of school construction capital outlay from FY1994-2013. 

The local school districts carried the lion’s share for school construction capital outlay and contributed an average of 82% of the costs for school modernization, renovation, major systems and component renewals and new construction. This compares to the annual operating expenditures of school districts for FY14, where 9% of funds are from federal sources, 46% are from state sources, and 45% are from local sources.

There are over 15,000 school districts responsible for public education across the country and they jealously guard local control of their public schools.  However, this organization of public education finance for capital outlay leaves children from low-wealth school districts and inactive states without the ability to provide modern public school facilities. 

Evolving School Needs

The inequities in ability to pay are extreme, even as school districts are faced with nearly identical facilities challenges.

  • Public school facilities average about 50 years old, and their roofs, boilers, air handling units, windows, doors, plumbing and electrical systems, finishes, furniture, fixtures and equipment have exceeded their expected lives and need to be upgraded or replaced.
  • Construction codes have changed over the life of these buildings, and school districts must make design and construction changes to address these new standards for climate change, accessibility, health and life-safety.
  • Education delivery and curriculum has changed, and career technical education, early childhood, special education, and educational technology often require reimagining school facilities altogether or making design and construction alterations to existing facilities in support of teaching and learning.
  • School-age populations and demographics always change, and the needs for shared use of public school facilities for day care, elder care, and other programs and services during the school day, after school and throughout the calendar year are increasing.
This environment has left school districts about $38 billion short each year to maintain existing school facilities in good repair and to make the alterations necessary to support the instruction, programs, services and community uses required for 21st century learning communities.

Status of Education Infrastructure Funding in Congress
For years, Capitol Hill staff have described the passage of infrastructure legislation as a “white buffalo.” Today, despite a divided Congress, there is favorable movement. There is a rare legislative window and the first real opportunity to include public school facilities in national infrastructure policy. On February 25, President Trump urged Congress to take up infrastructure legislation, which would fulfill one of his campaign pledges. At a luncheon with Republican and Democratic governors in March, Vice President Mike Pence went so far as to promise that the current Congress will “pass historic infrastructure legislation.”
Having reclaimed the chamber, House Democrats have taken the lead on infrastructure. The House Transportation & Infrastructure and House Education & Labor Committees have already held hearings on green infrastructure and on school facility funding. House Education & Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) introduced the Rebuild America’s Schools Act, HR 865 and SB 266 now co-sponsored by 179 House Democrats and 25 Senate Democrats. On February 26, the House Ed & Labor Committee successfully marked up the bill and sent it to the House floor.
The House and Senate bills are identical and include: $70 billion of direct funding as block grants to states over 10 years to be distributed, by states, based on low-wealth and high-need facilities and students; and $30 billion for bond financing tax credits over two years, also distributed according to needs-based criteria. Other important elements of this legislation are the ability to use $1 billion to build state capacity for data, planning, technical assistance, and guidance on standards; and national research and reporting.
In their broader infrastructure proposal last year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer set the baseline for public school facilities funding at $40 billion for K-12 and $10 billion for community college facilities. The position of the Democratic leadership is important because it must be fully prepared to produce and continue to advocate for an infrastructure plan that includes public school buildings.

However, the 116th congressional legislative window for action is short. Congressman Richard Neal (D-MA), Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, is discussing with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin how to finance a package, and Neal believes that Congress has until the end of August to act. In a recent meeting with the staff of House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC), the Deputy Policy Director suggested that the House may take up a comprehensive infrastructure package in May.

Advancing a Bi-Partisan Advocacy Strategy

The Democrats are committed to federal infrastructure funding and to schools in the infrastructure package. The House is likely to pass the Rebuild America’s School Act. However, there is no bi-partisanship on this legislation. Even though in a recent poll of Americans — Republican and Democrat —66 percent said they supported federal spending on school buildings.

In January 2018, the 21st Century School Fund, National Council on School Facilities, the Center for Cities + Schools @ UCB and the Center for Green Schools @ USGBC formed the [Re]Build America’s Schools Coalition (BASIC), a non-partisan coalition to advocate for federal funding for public school infrastructure as part of a national infrastructure package.

BASIC, with strongest representation from state facilities directors from the National Council on School Facilities, has met with House and Senate members and staff in 2017 and 2018 to educate them about the conditions of school facilities in their states. To date, we have met with most Republican Senators or their staff. We have learned that:

  • School facilities has not been on their radar screen and they know little if anything about the issue. Simply getting them up to speed on the scale of the problem back home and how federal funding can help has been a basic first step.
  • We have been surprised by their openness to including school facilities in any comprehensive package. Only a few Senate offices have come back to us with the traditional Republican, hands-off, “local control” response. Their perspective is affected by the conditions on the ground in their state. 
  • Most are taking a wait-and-see attitude in terms of what the White House will support and what is finally in the legislative package.
What You Can Do

The BASIC coalition represents the only cross sector effort to secure schools in the infrastructure package.  

1)   Join BASIC.
2)   Contact and visit your legislators when they are home — Spring recess is April 13 -28th.
3)   Write an opinion editorial for your local paper on the importance of federal funding for crumbling schools districts.

MARY FILARDO is a leading national authority and advocate for improving the equity, efficiency and quality of public school facilities. She founded the 21st Century School Fund in 1994 to improve the crumbling public school facilities in the District of Columbia. She has researched and written extensively on public school facility policy and spending, as well as worked with communities and officials to engage them in effective long-range facilities master planning.

How the HIDDEN Senses Affect Attention and Learning at School

by Zoe Mailloux, OTD, OTR/L, FAOTA

When we teach children about their senses, there is not usually much emphasis on the important role that the sensory systems play in learning. Without our senses, we would have no way of taking in and processing any type of information from the world around us, thus all that we know and do is based on some initial sensory experience. In addition, most classroom lessons on the senses focus on only five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. However, there are two additional senses that are equally important and foundational to our experiences in the world: the position sense and the sense of movement. In this article, we will discuss the ways in which these lesser known senses impact children in classrooms.

The Position Sense (The Sense of Proprioceptive)
This sense tells us about the position of our whole body and how much force we are using during tasks. Through receptors in the muscles, tendons and joints, this sense works “behind the scenes,” helping us to make automatic adjustments that put our bodies in the best position for the task. In a single task we can see a myriad of ways this sense helps us to be efficient and comfortable. For example, we use the position sense to know how close or far we should be away from our desk, how much to bend or extend our arm when writing, how much force to use when pressing on a pencil and how much to adjust, stretch, and move our body to avoid cramping or discomfort while sitting. One of the main considerations related to the position sense at school is that traditional classroom furniture is often not conducive to posture that supports neuromuscular or sensory needs, such that children are often in poor positions for much of their time in the classroom. 

One of the main ways in which the position sense is often compromised at school is due to the common significant mismatch between size of students in relation the chairs and desks they use throughout the day. In fact, several studies suggest that less than 20% of school children sit at chair-desk combinations suitable for their body height. Considering the vast range of height and weight among students and the custom of equipping classrooms with few or sometimes only one size of chairs and desks, it is not surprising that few students find an optimal match. Complicating the equation further is the fact that dimensions for children in the earlier grades change in the same child from the beginning to end of a school year. The situation is compounded by the fact that a great deal of school furniture is out of date and does not conform to minimum orthopedic or physiological requirements.

A simple rule of healthy ergonomics is the 90-90-90 rule. Early orthopedic studies recognized that keeping most joints (i.e. at the head/neck, the elbows, and the hips/knees) at 90˚ angles reduced stress on muscles and joints. Chairs and desks that are not the appropriate size for student make this ergonomically-sound position impossible. 

Position Sense Solutions at School
            Adjustable height chairs and desks offer the best solution to ensuring that students are sitting in optimal positions for learning and paying attention. Office “task” or “swivel” chairs with pneumatic mechanisms provide some of the most cost-effective ways to offer appropriate heights for students. Adjustable height desks are an alternative solution, but they are often more cumbersome to adjust. If adjusting a seat to the optimal height at a table or desks brings the student’s feet off the floor, a small step stool, box or foot ring can be a simple remedy.   Consideration of the placement of visual information, distances between furniture, heights of other classroom materials, such as shelving or hooks, and organization of materials that need to be reached or put away can also improve the positioning used by students throughout their school day.

The Movement Sense (The Vestibular Sense)
The sense of movement detects the pull of gravity and movements of the head, so that we can perceive the way we are moving through the world. Some people may know that this sense has something to do with the feeling of being dizzy when we turn around and that is also the sense that controls balance. However, there are many other important roles of this sensory system which are not commonly known. Like the position sense, the sense of movement operates in an automatic way to support many basic functions. For example, this sense helps us coordinate motions of our eyes and head, in actions such as looking up at a blackboard then back down at a worksheet. Without this sense alerting the eye muscles that the head is moving, the words on the board and page can “jump around” making it difficult to read and to keep our place. 

Since this sense is designed to detect the pull of gravity, it also helps us to keep our head and body upright against. The sense of movement is also our internal “GPS” helping us to know up from down, right from left, etc., in an experiential way, so that we can understand and use these navigational concepts. Neurologically, this sense lays the groundwork for communication between the two sides of the body, thus allowing us to reach across our body midline, coordinate both hands in a task and to develop a dominant had for skills. In addition, this sense is critical to our state of alertness. When we do not move much, or in slow rhythmic ways, our brain interprets this as a signal to relax and sleep. More vigorous movement indicates that it is time to be awake and engaged.

While furniture for adults, especially in the workplace, has offered a myriad of options tailored to individual preferences for decades, the idea that children would benefit from seating that offers motion is only recently becoming acknowledged. Expecting children to “sit still” and learn is a flawed concept. When we sit still, our brains think it is time to go to sleep. Students will naturally try to fight this feeling by fidgeting in their chairs, swaying side to side, or tipping back in their chairs.     

Movement Sense Solutions at School
          Considering the tendency toward more sedentary activities due to increased use of computers and other digital devices, as well as fewer opportunities for movement with less time spent at recess and in physical education, the need to think about and plan “movement breaks” during the school day is more essential than ever. Choices in seating options which provide safe and non-distracting motion for students are also critical. While research with ball-chairs and air-filled seat cushions shows generally favorable results, these options are not very practical in most school settings. Rather, task or “swivel” chairs, noted above as options which provide adjustment for height, also provide side-to-side, and some up-and-down movement, thus are smart options. Classroom style rockers are also a great choice for reading, tablet work and collaborative classroom activities. While teachers are sometimes hesitant to introduce “moving” chairs into classrooms, numerous projects have demonstrated that once the teachers experience the improved attention and learning that occurs with safe and non-distracting motion, they do not want to return to static classroom chairs.

          While the choice of adjustable height, dynamic seating can be a bit more expensive upfront, the potential long-term savings to school districts can be significant. Better attention and behavior can provide not only academic, physical and mental health benefits, but positive financial outcomes as well. Static furniture does not support children’s sensory or learning needs.  Considering that school-age children often spend up to 9 hours sitting per day, those who make decisions about classroom furniture need to be informed about the consequences of poor seating choices. An investment in appropriate, comfortable and supportive classroom furniture is the least we can do to help to ensure success for students. 

Dr. Zoe Mailloux is globally recognized for her expertise in child development, sensory integration, autism, & occupational therapy. With more than 35 years of experience, Zoe has been a champion for increasing understanding of individual differences, with the aim of enhancing participation in meaningful ways, for people of all abilities. With more than 30 years’ experience in executive leadership of non-profit therapy practices, Zoe has been known for developing innovative programs to support children & families.

Facilitating Teachers as Designers of the Learning Environment

By Julie Henderson, Lynda Hayes, Ashley Pennypacker Hill and Jennifer Ramski

P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School at the University of Florida
is one of Florida’s four university lab schools. Established in 1934, P.K. Yonge’s mission is to design, test, and disseminate innovations in K-12 education through serving a diverse student community. As the result of a campus master plan evaluation in 2007, P.K. Yonge began a multi-phase project to reconstruct their K-12 school campus, beginning with the elementary building which opened in 2012.


A new state-of-the-art building is scheduled to open for 21 teachers and 350+ students in four months. Input had been provided and was incorporated into the architectural design and construction, but interior design and furniture specifications were not included in the design-build scope. There was no plan for furniture. As future inhabitants of the space, teachers had to be at the center of design choices, but they were also designing the plane while in flight —developing new ways of doing school as the new facility was being constructed.

Building Design and Construction
The design phase of the elementary building at P.K. Yonge began in 2008 with input from many stakeholder groups within and beyond the school community. By the time the project broke ground, teachers were invested, had a deep sense of ownership over the new facility, and more than likely, breathed a sigh of relief.

Once construction began, teachers’ minds were, in large part, refocused on transforming the school program to take advantage of the future architecture: curriculum, schedules, and student groupings. Teachers could take a break from “Should this wall be glass or solid?” and “Where should an electrical outlet be?” and return to the more familiar territory of “How are we going to teach in this space?”

Learning Design
Floor plans were on the table in many meetings, and groups of teachers spent time discussing and developing models of teaching and learning appropriate for a school and learners of the future. With the new facility grounded in a multi-grade learning community model, professional learning focused on developing operational models for learning communities — what they look like, how they function, and how they transform teaching to support all students. As a result, teachers became well-versed in innovative models of education and the learning spaces that support them. They had been experimenting in inflexibly-designed 1950s facilities, but their proposed shifts in teaching practice were seismic. School administrators had been searching for existing schools for to see in action and learn from, but choices were very limited. At this stage, the light was also dawning that this space was going to need furniture.

Learning Space Design
Enter Jennifer Ramski, founding principal of the interior design and planning firm, Ramski & Company. Ramski arrived on the scene with construction nearing completion and a six-week time frame in which to facilitate decision-making for furniture solutions with 21 teachers for a 35,000-square-foot building. The pressure was on and school leaders were determined to have teachers drive the design of the learning spaces.

Challenges were numerous, all in the name of designing a school and model of education that was innovative and truly focused on meeting the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s learners. A two-pronged initiative innovating around architecture and interior design, and driving major shifts in teaching and learning meant that even in their area of expertise teachers didn’t know what they didn’t know. They were in the process of designing new ways of work, new ways of being in their work spaces, and new ways of scheduling and organizing students. So many decisions had to be based on hypotheticals and processes not yet fully tested. In addition, most K-12 educators could not even begin to dream that they would be able to choose new furniture for their existing classrooms, much less design a completely new building and furnish it.

This new facility presented elementary teachers at P.K. Yonge with a huge new space, and then asked them to choose what should be inside it. For a single teacher in a single classroom, this would be challenging enough. Now add seven teachers who have to agree on all the furnishings for the whole learning community. A challenge to say the least, not to mention the added responsibility of making decisions that would impact teachers and students for generations to come.

The decision-making process was further complicated by the added layer of an evolving educational program. Making choices for design and furniture brought to light unclarified details regarding curriculum, teaching and learning, scheduling, and managing student movement in the space needing resolution before final choices could be made. Meetings and conversations about design and furniture were lengthy, detailed, and absolutely necessary. While Ramski & Co. were committed to making teachers dreams come true, efforts were also challenged by space size, wall placement, time frame, and other architectural features already in place.

Facilitating Final Design Choices
After an initial whole-group programming session, it was clear that large group input would not work given the cacophony voices and a rigorous timeline. Ramski and her team shifted gears and developed rapid cycles of decision-making. A core committee for furniture was established with representation from each of the learning communities (K/1, 2/3, 4/5) and two elementary teacher leaders. Givens were established by the teachers to help refine the focus and streamline conversations: flexibility, modes and preferences for teaching and learning, space, time frame, and storage needs, among others. Ramski’s team developed and administered surveys for the whole faculty from which designs were developed and shared with the core furniture committee for feedback. New designs were developed based on teacher input, presented to the committee, and the cycle continued. At certain points, larger groups were brought together to finalize input for each specific learning community’s needs, and forced decisions were made.

Knowing that teachers have high levels of expertise in “making do,” Ramski was committed to giving teachers what they wanted. It became immediately evident that the capacity to listen to what was being said ‘behind and underneath’ the teachers’ words was critical, and to know that silence meant that teachers were not in agreement, weren’t feeling heard, and were retreating back to their well-honed “make do” mode. It was also critical to find pathways for teachers to work in true partnership with designers and for the design team to know their teachers as clients. Teachers knew what they wanted to do, and Ramski and her team knew the market. This partnership meant that choices could be made with optimal expertise on both sides of the designer-educator project team.

With expert facilitation, deeply-invested teacher input was solicited and incorporated into all aspects of decision-making. Design choices were made, furniture selected, and amazingly (kudos to the teams) move-in day took place as planned.

Post-project Observations
Fast forward six years and a retrospective view tells us the process has been a success. The school enjoys interest from around the world in its architecture, design, and innovative teaching practices. With maximum flexibility as a guiding principle, the space successfully supports the innovation and change integral to the school’s culture and mission. 

Hindsight always provides such clarity and wisdom. Observations on the process, coupled with post-occupancy evaluations are critical in informing professional practices for designers and educators engaging in a project of this magnitude, and the educator-design team gained much from the experience of Phase 1 of the campus rebuild. With Phase 2 to break ground in 2019, much of the wisdom gained from the designer-educator partnership from Phase 1 is being incorporated into a process for the secondary building that promises excellent outcomes and fewer sleepless nights!

Interior Design Process Observations and Tips

     Start early in design — Being included in the schematic design phase allows for critical opportunities to listen and for teams to develop trust.

     Include teachers in the planning and programming — Teacher input at the schematic design phase is the expert voice in the use and functionality of spaces and furniture.

     Hire experienced professionals with education experience — Design professionals with education experience have an enhanced capacity to listen “behind and underneath” what teachers are saying.

     Include teachers and designers in professional development — The team learns and discovers together and ensures expertise of both teams is utilized.

     Experiment with samples — Hypotheticals or drawings are inadequate for choosing options that best work in spaces and with children as occupants. Teachers must have a chance to use samples with their students.

     Specify budget and what teachers want — Include sizes, colors, and finishes. This saves time during the bidding process.

     Engage the facilities manager during purchasing, installation, and transfer of ownership — Include warranties, cleaning instructions (especially fabrics), and maintenance requirements.

     Focus on keeping everyone “on board” — A new facility is such a great celebration! Make sure everyone feels that way!

School Leadership Observations

     Teaching and learning continues to evolve — Furnishings chosen for maximum flexibility can be reorganized annually as teachers and students learn and grow into the space.

     Teachers need walls — Display spaces and teaching walls are essential for supporting student learning and celebrating student work. Don’t underestimate how much!

     Storage needs are vital — Teachers and students have “stuff” and it all needs to go somewhere.

     Teaching and learning shift in response to architecture — They don’t shift on their own. Professional learning and commitment are critical to staying the course and changing the future for our children.

This article is based on the EDspaces 2018 presentation by Julie Henderson, Director of Communications at P.K. Yonge; Lynda Hayes, Director at P.K. Yonge; Ashley Pennypacker Hill, Director of Student and Family Services at P.K. Yonge; and Jennifer Ramski, Principal at Ramski & Company.