The Public School Edifice Complex: New report assesses spending on buildings vs. instruction

HARRISBURG, PA — Today, the Commonwealth Foundation released a policy report, Edifice Complex: Where Has All the Money Gone?, which examines the spending in public education in Pennsylvania and the role of cyber schooling in saving taxpayers money on school construction costs.

Authors Robert Maranto, Ph.D., an associate professor at Villanova University and a scholar at the Commonwealth Foundation, Nathan Benefield, director of policy research at the Commonwealth Foundation, and Jason O’Brien, a graduate student at Villanova University, examined the level of public education spending on construction and administration relative to spending on student instruction in Pennsylvania’s public schools.

Maranto, Benefield, and O’Brien conclude that “Pennsylvania schools are underperforming not because they spend too little, but perhaps because of how they spend their money.” They suggest that many school districts suffer an “Edifice Complex,” putting buildings ahead of teachers and kids. For example, from 1996-97 to 2005-06, overall public school spending increased 59% (32% after adjusting for inflation)—a 51% increase in instructional expenditures, a 62% increase in administration and support services, and a whopping 103% increase in spending on construction and debt.

“Most disturbingly, we found a surprisingly strong inverse correlation between the percentage of total education spending going to construction and that going to instruction,” said Dr. Maranto. “In other words, school districts that choose to spend more on construction end up spending less on instruction.”

In contrast to traditional public schools, the authors assessed the spending on student instruction in Pennsylvania’s public charter cyber schools. Nearly 16,000 students were enrolled in Pennsylvania public charter cyber schools in 2006-07. Public cyber schools offer students many on-line resources and provide frequent interaction with teachers via on-line lessons and assignments. This allows students to remain at home, which significantly reduces costs to taxpayers.

Despite popularity among parents, public cyber schools have come under increasing attack from school boards and some legislators. Legislation introduced by Rep. Karen Beyer and Rep. Greg Vitali would limit public cyber schools’ independence and reduce funding for cyber students. The authors suggest, however, that instead of attacking cyber schools, school reformers should attempt to apply the public cyber school model to school districts. Schools must become more focused on instruction, better equipped to handle individual students’ needs, and more reliant on parental involvement.

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The Commonwealth Foundation is an independent, non-profit public policy research and educational institute located in Harrisburg, PA. The full report, “Edifice Complex: Where has all the money gone?” is available online at or here.