Big Spending on School Infrastructure Is Bad Policy
With the American economy finally seeming to show some signs of life, many groups are now lobbying for a crash program to renovate public schools. In early March, for example, the National Center for Educational Statistics released a report, saying it would take at least $200 billion to upgrade the nation’s K-12 facilities to “good overall condition.”
Not to be outdone, the US Green Building Council released its own “State of Our Schools” report a week later, putting the minimum tab at $271 billion -- $572 billion if schools were modernized to what the USGBC considers “today’s health and safety standards.”
And while school construction is typically a state and local responsibility, some liberal policy analysts, such as Jared Bernstein, Senior Fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, have called for a one-time massive federal investment in K-12 education infrastructure.
Many of our schools have certainly been around for a while. According to the American Society for Civil Engineers, nearly half the nation’s public school buildings were constructed more than fifty years ago to accommodate the post-War baby boom. And since the start of the recession, state spending on education infrastructure has declined nearly 50 percent.
Yet unlike improvements to roads, dams, or bridges, spending to renovate educational facilities has consequences far beyond extending the useful life of an existing public asset. At a time when many needed school reforms suggest a radical departure from the traditional means of delivery, a crash program to rehabilitate infrastructure is, to say the least, misguided.
Consider the implications for America’s 6,000 charter schools, serving approximately two million students in 41 states and the District of Columbia. Operating outside the tenure and work-rule restrictions typically imposed by teacher unions, many urban charters, like New Haven, Connecticut’s Amistad Academy, help poor and minority children achieve academic results that compare favorably to those of students in the most affluent suburbs. This year, three charters made the top ten in U.S. News’ annual ranking of the best American high schools.
Unfortunately, not every charter is so successful, in part because intense lobbying by public employee unions has restricted their financing. While most receive per pupil funding from states or school districts, few are allowed public money to acquire or maintain facilities. Because the vast majority must obtain space by soliciting donations, cutting into operating expenses to service construction loans, or renting abandoned public schools, charters actually have nothing to gain from current proposals to massively upgrade education infrastructure.
Indeed, the more we examine promising education reforms, from Internet-based home schools to vouchers for private and parochial institutions, the less any of them have much to do with renovating traditional public schools. Even academic innovations that require public facilities do not necessarily require public school buildings.
For example, an online learning subsidiary of Cengage Learning recently announced that it is partnering with Smart Horizons, an accredited Internet-based school district, to offer high school diplomas through the facilities of the Los Angeles Public Library. With more than a million children dropping out of school each year and few remedial options for people past their early twenties, turning libraries into learning centers seems at least as valuable an educational investment as refurbishing the schools that continue to produce the dropouts.
Of course, many of those who argue for massive infrastructure spending do like one supposed innovation: a new grade below kindergarten. According to the Washington Post, thirty states are either instituting or raising funding for so-called “pre-K” programs. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has made it clear he would much prefer to see the empty space in traditional public schools currently used by charters converted instead into pre-K classrooms.
Giving an early boost to children with a diagnosed learning disability or disadvantaged background is certainly a worthy goal, but it does not take a degree in neuroscience to see that the needs of the estimated 40 percent of students who enter kindergarten far behind their peers are way too varied to be remedied in a one-size-fits-all classroom setting. Furthermore, many learning deficiencies are optimally addressed at ages much lower than four.
Even many experts who believe that formal classes below kindergarten have a future in public education do not think we as yet know enough to make an intelligent investment in pre-K. Citing the widely recognized failure of the federal government’s Head Start program, Peter Salins, director of Stony Brook University’s Graduate Program in Public Policy, argues that several different pre-K approaches should be rigorously tested in a few locations over a period of years so that only the truly effective ones can be adopted.
If there is any compelling pedagogic reason to renovate traditional public schools, it is not to make them larger but smaller, so that students can take advantage of online courses, especially in math, science, and foreign languages. While proponents of infrastructure spending like to talk about “wired schools” and “computer literacy,” few proposals show areal willingness to replace mediocre teachers with superior Internet offerings.
It would be nice to believe that America’s educational problems could be solved by making existing public school buildings more cheerful, a little “greener,” and big enough to accommodate just one more grade. But any plan to spruce up the classroom that does not include funding for charters, greater parental choice, online curricula, and experimentation to correct academic deficiencies simply preserves the status quo, albeit in a prettier package.
Instead of treating the aging of schools as a crisis, we should see it as an opportunity to turn away from what is not working and build an educational system that honestly reflects what we know, and do not know, about learning.
Andrews is author of To Thine Own Self Be True: the Relationship between Spiritual Values and Emotional Health (Doubleday).