Each year at this time the trade magazine School Planning and Management publishes a survey of recent public-education construction, regional and national, complete with median and average square footages per pupil at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.
Historically, public education has used state sid for educational construction as the lever for compliance with State regulation of school construction, which has long used square-footage-per pupil-in-the-classroom as one of many building design criteria.
For decades that magic number has been 30 in most states, even as other requirements like minimum classroom size in Vermont, the ratio of plumbing fixtures to enrollment, the intensity of lighting and ventilation, and so on, have come and gone, varied from state-to-state (different student bladder capacities, no doubt) or been adjusted up and down as energy has cycled up and down in cost. In almost all States, total square footage per pupil (SF/P) at the elementary, middle, and high school levels has been remarkably constant over those same decades.
Vermont has been one recent exception, and there may be others; Michigan, for example, where large school districts like Detroit have been plunging in enrollment even faster, and are not only putting fewer students in individual classrooms (like Vermont) but have been closing schools (unlike Vermont) as enrollment declines.
Now the SP&M numbers are out again, and again New England, including Vermont, is posting much higher numbers than the rest of the country. A little educational history is enlightening.
In the Roaring Twenties, for example, when the now-well-known inner rings of suburbs around American cities -places such as Brookline in Massachusetts and Oak Park in Illinois-were being built and expanded, many public high schools of that era were designed with a substantial percentage of what today would be considered under-sized classrooms, half the typical 900 sq. ft., so that administrators could improve student achievement via half-size classes: not 30 or so, but more like 15.
If your school has small classrooms, you can't have so many of those offensive large classes. Test-score-wise, the preceptorial-sized classrooms didn't achieve better student learning, but no matter; since then all class sizes have shrunk, over the decades, until today when the then-special small-class size is now the national average.
State requirements for square foot/pupil and minimum classroom size haven't changed-Vermont for decades has had a minimum classroom size of 750 sq. ft., even as actual average class size has shrunk to below a dozen from the previous norm of 25-and, as you might reasonably expect, states which have shrunk classes while not shrinking classrooms (or lobby/corridor areas) are now posting higher total SF/P numbers. Most aren't, which explains why this year's SP&M new school size numbers by region are little changed from long-standing past norms: elementary, 125 SF/P; middle, 142; high, 156.
When I was first putting pencil to paper in school design in the late 1950s, the averages were 120, 140, and 160. But not now in Vermont, which shares the fairly unique New England predilection for more expansive (and expensive) buildings, with new construction for each of the three grade-groups showing averages of 155, 164, and 195 respectively. To the question, "How I can check the figures for my local schools?", the short answer is: You can't anymore.
The longer answer is that official state ed department and local district or SU data for individual schools showing actual square footage and official building capacity rating are no longer considered publicly-available information. They were, once: anyone could call the Superintendent's office, or the SED, to get such numbers, which were maintained there in a (somewhat) famous three-ring binder- a data page for each schoolhouse building in the state, and well-known locally as well.
All that past transparency ended in the mid-90's, when at a hearing on school costs in Montpelier when I referred to it, the then-SED legal counsel said, "Don't call us for such data. The Legislature has deprived us of funds to maintain the notebook any longer."
In the not-so-distant past, when Act 60 was new and Act 68, Son-of-60, was as yet unconceived, the school data site actually showed, not only test scores, class size, and spending by school, but even a ranking in terms in spending effectiveness. Once it was realized that the public could see that the best student achievement didn't always present in the wealthier districts (the basic complaint underlying Act 60) , the ranking was swiftly removed from the site.
Well, it ain't the past anymore,; now, with neyacnost having replaced glasnost in educational policy, you ain't gonna get the basic data like school size and capacity any more either, and as the new SED policy of no-data-to-the web-site continues, all that's left there will soon be quite stale and useless.
As the nation's only four-term president once said, "Nothing in politics happens by accident." Case in point: public education in Vermont.
Former Vermonter Martin Harris lives in Tennessee.