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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Smart Schools, Smart Growth: Investing in Education Facilities and Stronger Communities


California is midway through one of the grandest public infrastructure projects ever attempted. Over the coming decade school officials will complete an $82 billion effort, building new schools and renovating old facilities, supported by taxpayers and private investors. But are state officials and local planners building schools mindfully to advance educational quality and lift local communities?

After committing one-third of these revenues, students and teachers are feeling robust benefits across the state: fewer pupils are crammed into overcrowded schools; smaller high schools are nurturing stronger relationships between teachers and students; and energy efficient green schools are sprouting, yielding savings for taxpayers. But state policies governing school construction are contributing to some unintended side effects.

California can target its $82 billion investment more mindfully to build and renovate schools in ways that raise educational quality and the sustainability of regional economies. Or, the state can squander this historic opportunity, stifling inventive forms of schooling and reinforcing the state’s centrifugal, unsustainable sprawl. That would be one of California’s greatest missed opportunities.

Schools are centers of social activity in many communities. They can attract new middle-class families, or convince them to leave for suburban outreaches. This report contributes to a new conversation around how careful school construction can enrich metropolitan areas and sustainable forms of regional development.

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