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Please sir, can I go to gaol?

Most prisons are in better shape than schools, according to Paul Houston, director of the American Association of School Administrators who says more than Pounds 75 billion is needed for vital repairs and expansion, writes Jon Marcus.

The crunch comes at a time when American taxpayers are not exactly feeling generous. A survey by an education magazine found that the total spending on school construction actually fell last year by $100 million to about $10 billion.

"We send our kids to school in buildings that we as adults would not spend our days in. That's got to send some sort of subliminal message to students about how we value them," said Mr Houston.

Mr Houston is also the former schools superintendent of Tucson, Arizona, where the roofs of two school buildings collapsed - both empty at the time. Other districts report dangerous structural problems, leaks, broken windows and ventilation systems, unusable bathrooms and hazardous wiring.

One-third of US schools were built in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the so-called baby boom began. Another population increase, combined with continued immigration, is about to boost enrolment to 51 million by next autumn, the highest in 25 years.

"Any time you've got a $112 billion fix-it problem, I think you can only conclude that the situation is abysmal," said Michael Casserly, director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents urban districts whose school buildings are an average of 50 years old. Yet taxpayers, Mr Casserly said, are not much in the mood to spend anything.

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