Study Offers Sobering Report on America’s Schools


WASHINGTON, D.C.-Mold, extreme temperatures, overcrowding, poor air quality, vermin infestation, and other deplorable conditions in too many public schools throughout the United States must be addressed immediately as a top educational priority, the American Federation of Teachers concludes in a report released today.

"This is a health issue, a safety issue, and an educational issue," said Antonia Cortese, AFT executive vice president. "In the world’s richest nation, every child is entitled to learn in clean, well-maintained classrooms. As we try to build young minds, we also have to mind school buildings."

Building Minds, Minding Buildings-Turning Crumbling Schools into Environments for Learning was based on the responses of more than 1,000 school employees to a survey on the physical environment at their schools. Many of the responses revealed some startling building conditions, from students who have to wear coats and gloves in class to rats and mice entering classrooms through windows and cracks in walls. The report features compelling observations and quotes from teachers and school employees in urban areas, small towns, and rural communities alike:

  • "The mold is so bad that in one of the teachers' bathrooms, mushrooms are growing," remarked a math specialist from New York state.
  • "[We have] leaks and even the occasional icicle from my computer lab ceiling, asbestos coming up off the floor, the exterior walls are crumbling. We feel forgotten by our community and state and federal funding," said a Minnesota technology coordinator.
  • "Our school has broken ceiling tiles, plumbing in bathrooms that have not been updated since the '60s, dirty carpets and electrical outlets that don't work (this causes the use of extension cords across the room), and finally, roaches are everywhere!" an employee at a Florida school commented.

Building Minds, Minding Buildings also includes vivid photographs of school conditions submitted by AFT members.

According to the report, an increase in cases of asthma may be linked to poor air quality, student concentration may be affected by temperature extremes, and student and staff absenteeism may be due to an unhealthy "built environment."

These also were the conclusions of a study required to be conducted by the U.S. Department of Education under the No Child Left Behind law but never publicized. The study found "the overall evidence strongly suggests that poor environments in schools due primarily to effects of indoor pollutants adversely influence the health, performance, and attendance of students." The agency shelved the study's results and took no action.

Even in the face of such evidence, federal, state. and local elected officials have been slow to adopt this issue as a top priority. As the AFT report notes, "Some supporters of increased accountability in our schools change the subject when the discussion turns to the condition of the buildings where our children learn."

The AFT recommends federal action, including:

  • Passage of America’s Better Classroom (ABC) Act, which would provide $24.8 billion in school modernization bonds for renovation of existing buildings and construction of new schools.
  • Passage of the 21st Century High Performing School Facilities Act, which would authorize grants to school districts for modernization and construction.
  • Creation of a “Learning Environment Indexâ€? under NCLB that would require schools and districts to make improvements in the teaching and learning environment.

The AFT recommends improvements at the state and local levels, including:

  • Stronger standards for school building and systems inspections.
  • Clear guidelines for school renovation practices.
  • Uniform and comprehensive pest control and maintenance plans.
  • Increased involvement of union members in the planning of new school construction and renovation.

"Teachers and school staff are more than willing to be held accountable for the achievement of our students," said Cortese, "but it’s time for elected officials at all levels to begin taking more responsibility for improving the physical learning environment in our schools."

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The AFT represents 1.3 million prekindergarten through 12th-grade teachers, paraprofessionals, and other school support employees, higher education faculty, nurses, and other healthcare workers, and state and local government employees.