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mentary 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 percent 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 bused to most new schools. In Maine, for example, the number of children attending public schools declined by 27,000 between 1970-1995. Still, annual state and local busing costs rose from $8.7 million to $54 million 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 average 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, Gov. 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
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