Investing in Schools: Capital Spending, Facility Conditions and Student Achievement

Paco Martorell, Kevin Stange, Isaac McFarlin

Abstract

Public investments in repairs, modernization, and construction of schools cost billions. However, little is known about the nature of school facility investments, whether it actually changes the physical condition of public schools, and the subsequent causal impacts on student achievement. We study the achievement effects of nearly 1,400 capital campaigns initiated and financed by local school districts, comparing districts where school capital bonds were either narrowly approved or defeated by district voters. Overall, we find little evidence that school capital campaigns improve student achievement. Our event-study analyses focusing on students that attend targeted schools and therefore exposed to major campus renovations also generate very precise zero estimates of achievement effects. Thus, locally financed school capital campaigns – the predominant method through which facility investments are made – may represent a limited tool for realizing substantial gains in student achievement or closing achievement gaps.

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