Horror stories abound about schools with roofs that leak, plumbing that backs up and windows that do little to stop winds.

America’s schools are in such disrepair that it would cost more than $270 billion just to get elementary and secondary buildings back to their original conditions and twice that to get them up to date, a report released Tuesday estimated. In a foreword to the report, former President Bill Clinton said “we are still struggling to provide equal opportunity” to children and urged the first federal study of school buildings in almost two decades.

Clinton and the Center for Green Schools urged a Government Accountability Office assessment on what it would take to get school buildings up to date to help students learn, keep teachers healthy and put workers back on the jobs. The last such report, issued in 1995 during the Clinton administration, estimated it would take $112 billion to bring the schools into good repair and did not include the need for new buildings to accommodate the growing number of students.

The Center for Green Schools’ researchers reviewed spending and estimates schools spent $211 billion on upkeep between 1995 and 2008. During that same time, schools should have spent some $482 billion, the group calculated based on a formula included in the most recent GAO study.

That left a $271 billion gap between what should have been spent on upkeep and what was, the group reported. Each student’s share? Some $5,450.

To update and modernize the buildings, the figure doubles, to $542 billion over the next decade.

“We have a moral obligation,” said Rachel Gutter, director of the group affiliated with the U.S. Green Building Council. “When we talk about a quality education, we talk about the “who” and the “what” — teachers and curriculum — but we don’t talk about the “where.” That needs to change.”

Her organization is urging the Education Department to collect annual data on school buildings’ sizes and ages, as well as property holdings. The group also wants the Education Department’s statistics branch to keep tabs on utility and maintenance bills.

“It’s a secret that we’re keeping because it’s shameful and embarrassing to us as a country,” Gutter said.

Horror stories abound about schools with roofs that leak, plumbing that backs up and windows that do little to stop winds.

“Would you send your kids or grandkids to one of these schools?” asked National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel, who supported the report along with the 21st Century School Fund, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Lung Association and the National PTA.

Schools’ appearances alone, of course, do not guarantee students’ success but it is certainly more difficult to teach and learn when water is coming in through the ceiling, pipes are growling or rooms are frigid.

(Next page: Green schools and poverty)