Restoring Schools to the Havens They Should Be

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, August 30, 2008

As Labor Day marks the end of summer and beginning of another school year, citizens presume that teachers are ready, but they may wonder if school buildings are, too.

The District's public schools have faced this question annually, and owing to a history of insufficient funding coupled with chronic mismanagement, the answer usually has been "no." As schools opened this week, however, strong leadership from Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, the D.C. Council and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee may have changed the answer to "mostly yes."

But this question about school buildings is symptomatic of a national problem. It illuminates America's persistent unwillingness to invest what it takes to create, operate and maintain public infrastructure, of which schools are a vital component.

Physically dysfunctional school buildings, like defective bridges and roadways or deteriorating water and sewer systems, ultimately are attributable to misguided policies and spending priorities.

Most lopsided is the federal budget. The bulk of annual federal spending, much of it borrowed because of insufficient tax revenue, goes to defense, social entitlements and interest on the national debt. What remains to create, enhance and maintain infrastructure, including helping disadvantaged school districts, is woefully inadequate.

State and local governments, likewise dependent on constrained tax revenue, are equally hard-pressed to come up with enough money for transportation improvements, critical infrastructure projects and needy schools.

Availability of operational and capital financing for education is especially vulnerable in communities that depend on property taxes. When real estate values fall, tax revenue can decrease significantly. This forces budget cuts that result in deferred school construction and maintenance.

If years elapse without essential work, the quality of a school system is seriously compromised. With costs escalating as years elapse, restoring quality becomes even more difficult.

But why spend so much money on schools? After all, a good teacher can teach motivated students under a tree or inside a tent. So what if school buildings don't meet state-of-the-art teaching standards, need some paint, have a few toilets that don't flush properly or are always a bit too cool or too hot?

Turn the question around. Shouldn't schools, where America's future generations are being educated, be well-designed, highly regarded works of civic architecture? Shouldn't a school occupied by children for hundreds of days annually, and also serving as a focus and resource for a community throughout the year, be beautiful as well as clean, comfortable and safe?

In cities, good schools can be havens for kids, as well as effective learning environments. For students whose homes and neighborhoods are less than stable, a well-built, attractive school may become a psychologically and physically secure haven. A beautiful school can motivate students to learn, but it also can foster positive behavior.

Conversely, if schools look and feel like physical extensions of dysfunctional homes and neighborhoods, students have little motivation to spend time. And when they do spend time in a structure in poor condition, they are more likely to engage in disrespectful, destructive behavior.

In the District's public schools, we must wait a few years to see the effects of the current changes -- school closures and consolidations, school building refurbishing, personnel shifts and reductions, curriculum innovation. These changes are essential, and everyone should be grateful that fixing and enhancing school buildings is among them.

As for reforming fiscal policies and practices affecting infrastructure across the nation, that remains a question, despite how much we have heard about change and no matter what happens at the polls in November.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company