Adequate funding and facilities are a universal and consistently overlooked pre-requisite for academic success. While designing equitable school financing measures is no easy task, even the most promising education reform policies cannot succeed unless schools have the financial capacity and appropriate facilities to get the job done.
Ensuring a quality education requires providing resources to children based on their educational needs, not where they live. Federal funding provides only a small part of the total education budget - approximately 8 percent. The rest is equally split between state and local funding. Almost all local funding is from property taxes. That means that affluent communities with high property values have much more money available for education spending.
Federal and state policies should ensure that students in poor and predominately minority districts are provided with the same high quality education available to their more affluent peers. Helping children to achieve comparable levels of academic success starts with equalizing funding, but often must go further. In high need communities, schools need budgets that are large enough to provide supplemental services that can even the playing field for traditionally underserved students.
In some states, the debate on how to equalize the educational outcomes of all students has resulted in a series of "adequacy lawsuits" - court cases that challenge states’ compliance with their own state constitutional mandates to provide an adequate education. In these cases, the definition of adequacy is grounded in the stark contrast between of the "haves" of students in affluent school districts to the "have nots" of poor, predominantly minority districts.
In New Jersey, the Education Law Center, a non-profit advocacy group turned to the courts to demand equal attention and funding to some of the state’s poorest, urban districts. To make their case, advocates provided concrete evidence of educational neglect in urban districts, from substantially lower graduation rates to crumbling buildings, less-qualified teachers, and technology labs full of second-hand equipment. In response, the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered the state to equalize per pupil spending between poor and affluent districts. The Court also ordered the state to take comprehensive action to address the other disadvantages facing children in poorer districts. This included providing additional state money for a fund to upgrade or replace inadequate school buildings and providing universal pre-kindergarten programs and after-school programs.
In New York, the American Institutes for Research and Management Analysis and Planning, Inc., two nationally-known research organizations, conducted a statewide study that began with an analysis of the programs and services in the state’s best public schools to determine how much it would cost to provide those same services to students in every school district. By assembling groups of frontline educators, researchers were able to ask specific questions about the materials, curriculum, and facilities that administrators and teachers need most, and then "cost out" what it would take to provide these supports for children in less affluent communities.
Decaying school buildings and antiquated facilities send children the unmistakable message that education is not a priority and neither are they. Even with the best teachers and the most rigorous academic standards, students cannot succeed without facilities that foster learning. Buildings must be safe, comfortable and modern. Science and computer labs must offer the most up-to-date equipment. Schools must also provide well-designed spaces for arts, sports and other extra-curricular activities. Instead of classrooms in overcrowded trailers and drafty gymnasiums, schools must offer permanent, thoughtfully designed learning spaces that maximize individual attention and group learning experiences for all students.
One prime example of a school that designed its space around the academic needs of its students is The Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High in San Diego. Based on a 1996 study that called for school design and academic reform based on personalization, connection to the adult world and a common intellectual mission, the school has set the standard for a 21st Century educational environment. In addition to classrooms that feature the latest technological innovations, High Tech High has also designed its work areas and common spaces to support learning through teamwork, group projects and presentations, and consistent integration of math, science, and technology.
Appropriate design and modern facilities are also an essential component of academic success at the George I. Sanchez Charter High School, an institution based in two of Texas poorest school districts, Houston and San Antonio. Under the direction of the Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans, the school campuses are specifically designed to meet the academic and personal needs of highly at-risk students who are most likely to drop out of school. In addition to the latest science and technology labs, Sanchez’s Houston campus has built a range of on-site facilities to provide students the supports they need to stay in school. These include a full-service medical clinic, comprehensive child care facilities for teen parents, and two live-in shelters - one for homeless youth and another for students with substance abuse issues.