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Letter to the House of Representatives amplifying Judi Caddick's testimony on school modernization 02/25/08

February 25, 2008

Dear Chairman Miller:


Thank you for the opportunity to testify at your committee’s February 13, 2008 hearing on “Modern Public School Facilities: Investing in the Future.” While I welcome the opportunity to amplify my comments, I am a classroom teacher, not an expert in school construction. The responses to the questions below from Representatives Yvette Clark and Vern Ehlers are based on information provided by NEA subject matter experts.

Clark:As you are aware, Congress is in the process of reauthorizing No Child Left Behind. Accountability, in the form of a school’s annual yearly progress (AYP), is an important component of NCLB. In your testimony, you mentioned the correlation between newer and better schools and standardized test scores. My question is twofold: first, can you discuss how substandard school facilities could impact a school’s ability to make AYP … 

“Adequate yearly progress” (AYP) is a measure of progress toward the goal of 100 percent student achievement of state academic standards in reading/language arts and math, at a minimum. Every student’s performance impacts AYP. In turn, the teaching and learning environment, including the physical condition of the school building, impacts student achievement.  

Poor indoor air quality (IAQ) is associated with absenteeism among teachers and students alike — it makes them sick, and sick students and teachers can’t perform as well as healthy ones. Temperature, humidity and ventilation contribute to IAQ. Data gathered by the U.S. General Accountability Office, going as far back as 1996, indicates that schools serving poor and minority students suffer disproportionally from poor IAQ. The federal government is encouraging further investigation of the consequences. No Child Left Behind, for example, calls for more research on the relationship between IAQ and student achievement.

Lighting and acoustics also affect teaching and learning. Studies show that appropriate lighting improves test scores and reduces off-task behavior. Levels of classroom noise and reverberation correlate with reading and spelling ability, behavior patterns, attention spans, and overall achievement in children.

On the one hand, the age, quality and aesthetics of school buildings have all been linked to student behavior problems, including vandalism, absenteeism, suspensions, tardiness, racial incidents, and smoking. On the other hand, capital investments in schools have been linked to higher student achievement, teacher motivation, school leadership, and the time students spend learning.

A substantial body of research documents how substandard school facilities adversely affect student performance and teacher effectiveness, thereby undermining a school’s ability to make AYP. Specifically:

  • Students who attend schools in better physical condition outperform students in substandard schools by several percentage points. Overcrowding makes it harder for students to learn, especially students from families of low socioeconomic status. (School Facility Conditions and Student Academic Achievement, 2002. Glen I. Earthman, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Published by UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, & Access. (Available at http://repositories.cdlib.org/idea/wws/wws-rr008-1002.)
  • Space, noise, heat, cold, light, and air quality all bear on students’ and teachers’ performance. What is needed — clean air, good light, a comfortable and safe learning environment — can be achieved with existing technology if funding is adequate and design competent. (Do School Facilities Affect Academic Outcomes? 2002. Mark Schneider, National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities. Available at http://www.edfacilities.org/pubs/outcomes.pdf.)
  • On Virginia’s Standards of Learning examinations at the middle school level, a higher percentage of students attained passing scores in English, mathematics, and science in standard buildings than in substandard buildings. (The Relationship between School Building Conditions and Student Achievement at the Middle School Level in the Commonwealth of Virginia, 2007. Calvin Bullock, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Available at http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/theses/available/etd-08212007-163313.)
  • The Ysleta Independent School District, a high-performing, high-poverty school district in Texas, found that from 1994 to 2001, the percentage of students who passed the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills varied with the age, condition, and cleanliness of school buildings. (A Study of the Effect School Facility Conditions Have on Student Achievement, 2003. Susan Lair, University of Texas. Available at http://wwwlib.umi.com/dxweb, Report No: 3116105.)
  • Green Schools: Attributes for Health and Learning, published by the National Academies Press in 2007, explores the relationship between the overall condition of school buildings and student achievement, and provides an analysis of — and recommendations for — planning and maintaining green schools. (Available at http://books.nap.edu/catalog/11756.html.)

Clark: … and second, do you believe that integrating a child’s immediate environment into their core curriculum could aid in their achievement?

Integrating the immediate school environment into the core curriculum would encourage students to take a greater interest in their physical surroundings and to become responsible environmental stewards. This approach, called “service-learning” (a form of experiential education based on a cycle of planning, action and reflection) has proven effective in community settings. Students acquire knowledge and skills, apply what they have learned, and experience the consequences — literally and emotionally. Research confirms that service learning approach can be an effective strategy for enhancing student achievement.

Ehlers: To what extent do public schools use public-private partnerships when funding school construction projects?

The United States has been slow to adopt the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) model for funding school construction projects. President Bush’s tax cut bill, the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, promised towns and cities that forming PPPs with real-estate developers and investors would enable them to build schools faster, better and less expensively. Few have done so, for good reason. The law sets a nationwide ceiling of $3 billion on private bonds for school construction. Moreover, U.S. Treasury regulations do not allow investors and developers involved in such projects to claim depreciation.

The PPP model has been used to finance construction of two high schools in the Houston Independent School District; charter schools in Florida and Michigan; and to finance renovation of vacant, privately owned commercial space for school use in Arizona, Florida, New Jersey, and North Carolina.

Ehlers: To what extent would it be reasonable to expect schools to raise a certain amount of funding in order to receive a federal incentive or matching payment?

In a few cases, school districts have had to raise construction funds to qualify for matching funds provided by the state — in California, for example. On the federal level, the Qualified Zone Academy Bond (QZAB) program, introduced in 1997, most closely approximates this approach. QZABs allow schools serving low-income students to reduce interest payments on tax-exempt bonds or loans used to finance capital improvements, usually about half the cost of renovating a school. The schools repays the entire amount borrowed; the lending institution receives a tax credit in lieu of interest payments.

To qualify for the QZAB program, a school must be located in a federal Empowerment Zone or Enterprise Community, or at least 35 percent of the students must be eligible for free- or reduced-price lunches. Participating schools partner with private businesses that contribute cash, goods or services worth at least 10 percent of the borrowed amount.

Ehlers: My congressional district may be home to the most Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified schools in the nation (four schools as of January 13). To what extent has recent school construction complied with the U.S. Green Building Council’s standards for LEED certification or other comparable standards?

The U.S. Green Building Council reports that since April 2007, when it launched LEED for schools, on average one school per day has registered for certification. More than 75 schools have been certified to date and 600 are in the pipeline.

Ehlers: How should the federal government encourage more K-12 schools to invest in sustainable construction activities?

To encourage more K-12 schools to invest in sustainable construction activities, Congress should fund the green schools research authorized by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. No existing federal study focuses on the correlation between the indoor environmental quality of green schools and students’ health and performance. Funding such a study would fill this research gap and provide crucial information for local decision-makers.

Ehlers: What is the preferable approach for encouraging more schools to use energy and environmentally friendly construction methods — federal incentives (e.g., matching funds, tax-exempt bonds, or grant funds) or federal mandates? 

The federal government should provide grants and other financial incentives to encourage school districts, especially those in less affluent areas, to use energy and environmentally friendly construction methods.

Ehlers: Related to this, I would also appreciate insights on how to encourage schools to engage in sustainable (“green” certified) remodeling projects.

Going “green” does not necessitate building a new school or even major renovations. Schools can go green gradually, starting with cleaning and purchasing policies, and installing high-performance lighting. Green performance contracting may be a good approach when capital and operating budgets are limited. The U.S. Green Building Council plans to release a guidance document specifically for schools later this year. In the meantime, schools can consult the Council’s LEED for existing buildings.

In closing, I thank you again for the opportunity to address these issues critical to the future of our children and our nation as a whole. I urge Congress to act quickly to authorize school modernization programs to help ensure that all our children have the safe, modern learning environments so integral to success.  

Sincerely,

Judi Caddick

 cc: Representative Yvette Clark 
  Representative Vern Ehlers