Tag: facilities

Why More Money Hasn’t, and Won’t, Fix the Nation’s Public School Buildings

Adam Schaeffer has just blogged about the massive increase in public school facilities spending of the past two decades, and about President Obama’s likely call to throw even more money at the problem of decrepit schools (in his address on the economy, next week).

Adam argues that money hasn’t fixed the problem, but it isn’t hard to imagine that a true believer in the status quo (paging Matt Damon…) might conclude that we simply haven’t increased facilities spending enough.

I addressed this counterargument a few years ago, using federal government data on the condition of U.S. public schools and data from a survey of Arizona private schools. What I found is that public schools were four times more likely than AZ private schools to have a building in “less than adequate” condition, despite the fact that public schools  spent one-and-a-half times as much per pupil. [And, yes, I’m talking total spending here, not just tuition].

So if private schools can and do maintain their buildings in far better shape than public schools, at far less cost, what exactly are public schools doing wrong? The answer comes from one of the federal government’s own assessments of school facilities nationwide. According to that report,

a decisive cause of the deterioration of public school buildings was public school districts’ decisions to defer maintenance and repair expenditures from year to year. However, maintenance can only be deferred for a short period of time before school facilities begin to deteriorate in noticeable ways. Without regular maintenance, equipment begins to break down, indoor air problems multiply, and buildings fall into greater disrepair… Additionally, deferred maintenance increases the cost of maintaining school facilities; it speeds up the deterioration of buildings and the need to replace equipment.

This routine deferral of necessary maintenance is not, as the spending data show, the result of a funding shortage; it is the result of mismanagement. Allowing a public school to decay has no inevitable consequences for management because public schools have a monopoly on k-12 funding. Private schools, by contrast, would lose students if their facilities crumbled, and so they make a greater (and more effective) effort to maintain them.

The solution to America’s public school repair problems is not to spend more, it is to unleash the freedoms and incentives of the free enterprise system on our creaking, calcified, government school monopoly.

More Fifth Column than Fourth Estate

Citing new Census figures, the New York Times claims that “public school districts spent an average of $10,499 per student on elementary and secondary education in the 2009 fiscal year.” But according to the most recent issue of the Digest of Education Statistics, expenditures haven’t been that low for over a decade. In the last year reported, 2007-08, total expenditures per pupil in average daily attendance were already $12,922 (in 2008-09 dollars). Adjusting for inflation, that’s about $13,500 in today’s dollars. (Looking at spending per student enrolled, rather than per student actually taught, lowers the total figure, but not by that much).

So what gives? How can the Times claim that public school “spending” is $3,000 lower than it actually is?

They simply exclude a huge swath of expenditures in the number that they call “spending,” without telling readers they have done so. Specifically, they ignore spending on things like… buildings. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think American public schools have returned to Plato’s practice of holding lessons in an olive grove. Until they do, they will use buildings. Buildings cost money. They aren’t erected, for free and fully furnished, from the mind of Zeus.

Not only does this arbitrary and unjustifiable exclusion of capital expenditures from the reported “spending” figures wildly mislead the public about what schools are really costing them, it also misleads the public about the trends in spending. As my colleague Adam Schaeffer reveals in the chart below, spending on physical facilities has increased at a far faster rate than other expenditures (remember those Taj Mahal schools?). So by channeling David Blaine and making capital spending disappear, the Times also misrepresents real spending growth. In so doing, they undermine the public’s and lawmakers’ ability to make sound policy decisions regarding education. If the Times prominently corrects this glaring error I will be utterly shocked.