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Why Can't Johnny Walk To School?

In the age of sprawl, they're built in the middle of nowhere

November 4, 2000 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Did you walk to school as a child? Unfortunately, most kids today must be driven to school. All over the country communities are abandoning historic neighborhood schools that students can walk to in favor of new schools the size of shopping malls built in far-flung locations. In Rice Lake, Wisconsin, for example, almost 200 elementary school students who now walk to school will soon be bussed to a new facility because of a district plan to close several existing schools. In Corning, New York, three neighborhood schools may soon be abandoned for a new building five miles out of town.

The problem for communities and families isn’t just the added public cost of constructing a new building where an older, historic one sufficed or the increasing expense associated with operating a growing fleet of school buses. It’s also that schools serve as community anchors and their location helps shape the character of the surrounding countryside.

The new trend of closing neighborhood schools and consolidating students in immense buildings far away is turning out to be a prime culprit in encouraging wasteful and damaging suburban sprawl. Enough people are concerned about school sprawl that this year the National Trust for Historic Preservation added historic neighborhood schools to its annual list of America’s Most Endangered Historic Places. Vice President Al Gore even addressed the issue in a campaign statement saying, “At a time when too many schools are arbitrarily built farther and farther away from the center of communities, I will work to encourage school districts to involve the whole community in planning new schools in locations that make sense for the whole community.”

What’s driving school sprawl? While the factors vary from state to state, at the top of the list are arbitrary school construction and funding policies that make it difficult, if not impossible, to either renovate existing neighborhood schools or to construct new schools close to where students live.

Among the biggest impediments are state education department space requirements. National guidelines recommended by the Council of Educational Facility Planners International call for at least one acre for every 100 students plus 10 acres for an elementary school, 20 acres for a middle school, and 30 acres for a high school. Under this formula a 2,000-student high school requires at least 50 acres, or more than almost any city, big or small, has available near its residential neighborhoods.

Likewise state funding policies often tip the scales in favor of building new instead of renovating existing schools. Many states stipulate that if the cost of renovating an older school exceeds 50 to 60 percent of the cost of the new school, the school district must build new, even though renovation is frequently cheaper than new construction. What’s more, the formulas typically don’t factor in the costs of land acquisition, sewer and water extensions, or road improvements required by new schools on the suburban fringe.

Costs also increase because children must be bussed to most new schools. In Maine, for example, the number of children attending public schools declined by 27,000 between 1970 and 1995. Still state and local busing costs rose from $8.7 million to $54 million a year during the same period. The main reason: The closure of historic neighborhood schools in walkable locations.

School sprawl doesn’t affect just kids, it also makes life worse for parents. A 1999 report by the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a Washington-based research and policy organization, reported that mothers with school-aged children make an average of more than five car trips a day, 20 percent more than other women. Today the typical American parent is trapped behind the wheel of a car an average of 72 minutes a day, chauffeuring children to school, and then from there, to soccer games, birthday parties, friends’ houses, and the like.

Perhaps the most powerful argument for curbing school sprawl is student achievement. The Atlanta-Journal Constitution recently reported that “the gap in academic achievement between rich schools and poor schools is greatly reduced when schools are smaller.”

This is powerful information with important implications because all over the country smaller, older schools are being closed in favor of bigger schools in far-flung locations. In Georgia, for example, more than 100 smaller, historic school buildings have been closed since 1986. “We need to find ways to create small supportive learning environments that give students a sense of connection,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley in his 1999 Back-to-School Address. “That’s hard to do when we are building schools the size of shopping malls.”

So what can be done? Change the rules. As part of Maryland’s new Smart Growth Initiative, Governor Parris Glendening was among the first state leaders to fix the school construction funding formulas to favor renovating older schools over building new ones. In 1995 only 34 percent of Maryland’s school construction funding was being used for improvements to existing facilities. Just three years later, Maryland spent 84 percent of its school construction budget on existing schools.

Pennsylvania, Maine, and Vermont also changed their funding formulas to aid historic schools. The reason is that neighborhood schools are worth preserving. They are generally buildings of architectural distinction that not only link residents to their roots in the past but also provide enduring usefulness for communities.

Sure, as we grow, America will always need new schools. But there is immense value in reinvesting in older schools, advancing the quality of life in existing neighborhoods, improving education, and doing whatever we can to slow damaging and expensive sprawl.

Edward T. McMahon is director of the American Greenways Program, a project of The Conservation Fund in Arlington, Virginia. He is reachable at emcmahon@conservationfund.org.

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