An empty kindergarten classroom

Q&A: Why Funding for School Buildings Matters Well Beyond Brick and Mortar

Audrey Breen

The Virginia General Assembly has included $1.25 billion for school building improvements in the state budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

According to Luke C. Miller, research associate professor at the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development, the upkeep of school buildings can have a significant impact on not only the learning that happens in the building, but also a challenge plaguing schools across the nation: teacher shortages.

“Virginia schools experience an 18 percent turnover of their teachers each year, and half of all teachers leave the profession after four years,” Miller said. “And this was before the COVID-19 pandemic, which has raised concerns about increased teacher turnover, an increase in teachers leaving the profession, and increased challenges in recruiting teachers.”

Miller, whose research portfolio includes identifying teacher recruitment and retention trends, answered a few of our questions on how new funding for school buildings might help efforts to encourage Virginia’s talented teachers to stay in the field.

Q: Can you describe the current need for funds designated to improve school buildings across the state?

There are varying needs across the commonwealth of Virginia. First, many schools are very old buildings that were designed for a pedagogical approach and content that has since significantly evolved and diversified. Building codes and regulations are also very different now than when many of those buildings were constructed.

There are also accessibility issues. Some schools have multiple floors and are not as easily accessible to all students, such as those with disabilities, as they should be.

The pandemic helped to put these building shortcomings in the spotlight. Schools identified needs such as improved ventilation and filtration systems and replacing traditional water fountains with water bottle refilling stations. They also paid close attention to how students moved within the school building. And there were significant needs around technology as the pandemic shifted instruction and learning from in-person to remote.

The need for these building funds varies across communities, for example, between those that are growing and those where the population is reducing. Some schools have rows of trailers on their school grounds and need permanent school facilities that can support more students and staff. In other parts of the state, the educational needs of a community could be better met by combining two or more under-enrolled, outdated school buildings into a single new or renovated building.

Q: Your body of research includes teacher retention. What connection does retaining talented teachers have to funds for school buildings?

New and updated spaces will surely have an impact on teacher retention and on the greater issue of teacher supply in Virginia. When we consider what communities do to recruit businesses, we think about a variety of elements in the community and a well-functioning school is part of that. The same will be the case for recruiting teachers. Having a new or updated school signals that the community is invested in and values the public education it provides.

Working in older or cramped spaces wears teachers down. It matters if the heating and cooling systems work or if the windows open. It matters if you are always having to find a workaround or feeling that you are always having to make do with less than what you need. Space can limit what you can do with your students or how flexible you can be. It has a real impact on instruction, not to mention job satisfaction.

All communities deserve quality schools, be they more rural or more urban; however, not all communities have the same ability to provide quality school buildings through local funds. The fact that a portion of these new funds target communities with pronounced needs is encouraging. These funds can help more disadvantaged schools recruit and retain teachers.

Q: Why is the need for school building improvements so significant?

Oh, it is very important. Everything else you do for students and teachers is done within the school building.

The impact on working conditions for teachers extends well beyond individual classrooms. Schools employ a variety of support staff who often work with individuals or small groups of students. They require adequate space where they can work with students.

We increasingly want to provide high school students with technical skills that require workshops, science labs and spaces for other kinds of hands-on learning and experience.

Space can also serve to support teachers’ development. That might mean having the physical space to conduct meaningful professional development for teachers and staff. It might also mean the technology to have that PD provided by a remote expert. Teachers and staff need and want effective professional development opportunities and an inadequate facility can limit that.

New and renovated school buildings can have a significant impact on how long teachers stay at a particular school or even stay in the profession entirely. The impact on retention ought to be more immediate. Teachers already in the system see the new school going up or the renovations occurring and want to stay to be able to experience the benefits of a new building. Knowledge of a new or renovated building should also help these schools recruit teachers. We see this in other professions.

The impact on the overall supply of teachers in the state is less certain at this point. We aren’t building everyone a new school or rehabbing all schools. Therefore, it is possible the benefits to recruitment and retention at some schools come at a cost to others. However, if these state funds are not a one-time infusion of capital funds but instead mark a renewed and continuing commitment to the spaces in which students learn, teachers teach, and staff support students, we could see more individuals wanting to teach and work in Virginia’s public schools. It’s going to take time, though.

Q: How much will this year’s funds help?

It is not at all cheap to rehab a building or build a new one. If you have a limited amount of funds to invest in public education in the state, we have often opted for increasing salaries for teachers, new curricula, computers for kids or other technology upgrades. And why have we done that? Well, those investments reach more individuals than building or renovating school buildings for some students and teachers in some divisions.

However, if we fail to invest in education’s physical infrastructure, then our return on these other investments will be diminished because of the unsatisfactory buildings. These new, targeted funds, which bring back state funds that were lost due to the Great Recession, don’t force divisions to make that trade-off.

We need to re-commit ourselves to investing public dollars in Virginia’s public education system at the level that meets the needs. The health and wellbeing of our students, teachers, and staff will improve as well as the overall school climate and working conditions, student performance, and teacher retention. The state’s renewed investment in the quality of our school buildings is an encouraging sign.

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