Taj Mahal Schools

There's an old joke about a policeman around midnight spotting a drunk crawling around a lamp post. When asked what he was doing, the drunk replied "looking for my lost car keys." "Where did you lose them," asked the police officer? "Over there," said the drunk pointing off into the dark." "Then why look here," asked the cop? "Because there's more light here," answered the intoxicated gentleman.

Alas, like the drunk looking around the lamp post, would-be educational reformers have transformed "improving education" to the much easier "just spend more money," and if that fails, just spend even more. The results will be identical -- no car keys and no academic improvement.

The latest installment of this expensive misguided endeavor is a $100 million dollar school located in New York City's largely black Harlem targeting under-performing students. Taxpayers will pick up part of the $100 million bill and the rest will come from Goldman Sachs ($20 million), Google ($6 million) plus $5 million from the school's developer, Civic Builders. This expensive new facility is, moreover, in addition to millions already spent on Harlem charter schools.

So, what do you get from a $100 million dollar school? Lots. The facilities include 52 classrooms equipped with state-of-the art electronics, three science labs, a two-story library, a fitness room and dance studio. Also included are in-school access to medical doctors, psychologists and a dentist while a school chef will prepare low-fat meals for breakfast and lunch. Add a longer school day and extended school year plus after-school programs to help with homework and for those who stay around until 9:00pm, sports, music and other activities. The school will also remain open on weekends and serve local adults with, among other activities, classes in salsa dancing, healthy cooking and lectures on avoiding illness.  

Keep in mind that this $100 million excludes substantial future annual operation costs not found in regular schools -- maintaining the technology, funding medical services, training teachers in the computer upgrades, keeping the library current and all the rest.

There is nothing in this catalogue of costly measures that will fix academic insufficiency. To be sure, claims of success for specific interventions abound, but these are inevitably met by equally convincing counter-claims of failure and tales of great triumphs often rest on fraud (for example, see here). Yes, nice computers and better social services will be welcomed but they will not bring improved learning. If these nostrums worked as advertized, our educational woes would have vanished decades back; reformers are grasping at straws.

The poster child of this failed strategy is the Kansas City experiment of the late 1980s and early 90s (see here). The aim was to provide palatial facilities so that African American students could overcome decades of attending under-funded schools while suburban whites would flock to the amenity-rich schools. Facilities included air-conditioned classrooms, planetariums, animal rooms, a twenty-five acre farm and a twenty acre wildlife area, a model UN assembly equipped with simultaneous language translations, radio and TV studios, movie editing equipment (with screening rooms), a temperature controlled art gallery, a $5 million indoor Olympic-sized swimming pool, fencing taught by the former head coach of the Soviet Olympic fencing team and a plethora of high-tech gadgetry. Also included were NFL-class weight rooms, extra teachers and specialized learning opportunities, even spending $50,00 per month for sending taxis to get white suburban students not on bus routes.

Meanwhile other Kansas City schools offered concentrations on international affairs, classes in multiple foreign languages, even teaching ancient Greek. Eight schools in the system now specialized in mathematics and science. Field trips were made to Mexico and Senegal, the high school director took a "good will" trip to Moscow, and the student-teacher ratios dropped to 13 to 1, the lowest in the nation. By 1993 this extravagance had added an additional $1.3 billion to an already large annual budget, $36,111 extra per pupil compared to expense per pupil before the spending spree.

By all measures the budget-busting experiment failed. Despite $2 billion in over-the-top facilities, drop-out rates moved upward while scores on standardized tests measuring reading and math declined. Nor could white students be enticed to attend these schools. At best there was a financial windfall for building contractors while numerous administrators personally profited.  

This fiscal extravagance when confronted with low-performing students is not unique. These schools now even have a special name -- Taj Mahal schools. The recently completed Robert F. Kennedy High School in Los Angeles cost a staggering $578 million offers students fine art murals, a marble memorial commemorating RFK, a manicured public park, and a top-of-the-line swimming pool. Other Taj Mahal schools in Los Angeles include the $377 million Edward R. Roybal Learning Center and the $232 million Visual and Performing Arts High School.

Investing hundreds of millions on physical structures for an iffy outcome is bad enough at a time of budget deficits and teacher lay-offs, but worse is how "helping students learn" is increasingly distorted to mean constructing lavish facilities.  It would be as if a sports championship were defined by who had the biggest payroll. This bait and switch is almost predictable after years of frustration, though this substitution hardly helps struggling students or over-burdened taxpayers.

To fathom this unfortunate pattern, recall Lyndon Johnson's advice: if you want a program to thrive, create a supporting constituency. As noted, lavish schools attract multiple, often politically connected constituencies, including parents demanding that "something be done" to educate junior. But where are the champions of the pain and frustration necessary for learning?  Who will pester public officials to force children to pay attention in class, respect their teachers, eschew rowdy behavior, do the assignments, and bear the pain that comes from trying to master difficult lessons?  Who will pressure Mom and Dad to turn off the TV and insist that junior read a book?  None of these educationally necessary behaviors provide jobs or lucrative construction contracts.

To appreciate the mismatch between top physical facilities and learning, consider a 175 year old Catholic grade school, the Transfiguration School, in New York City's Chinatown. The school survives on a near starvation budget. Students are generally of Chinese ancestry and class size far exceeds the City's average. It lacks a library, a nurse's office, and art and music rooms (the cafeteria doubles up) and the "gym" is a nearby outdoor, small, over-crowded park. Teachers receive ordinary salaries and the school depends on tuition and gifts.  Students are not rich -- most are eligible for free or reduced price lunches, a third receive scholarships while the City chips in a grand total of $57 annually per student for textbooks. There is zero school violence and classrooms are quiet with children in uniforms paying rapt attention to their teachers.  Test scores are extraordinary and many graduates enter New York City's elite high schools were only test scores count.  The cost -- $4800 per year -- is less than half the public school figure.

In other words, smart motivated students do not require over-the-top facilities. But, in today's political environment where government money if the great elixir, it is easier to spend millions than to get kids to study hard.

Robert Weissberg is professor of political science-emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana.  His latest book is
Bad Students Not Bad Schools.
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