Public Schools’ Edifice Complex

John Micek and I (@NathanBenefield) had a little discussion via Twitter over the cost of public school buildings. John wonders what is wrong with having nice school buildings – such as one with an huge skylit atrium – which is hard to answer unless you discuss the costs of those buildings to taxpayers, and how much is taken out of the classroom to satisfy the edifice complex of school administrators.

If John had read yesterday’s Fact Check, he would note that construction and debt is by far the fastest growing expenditure for school districts. We have updated those numbers – construction and debt spending grew 137% from 1996-97 to 2007-08, compared with 66% growth in instructional spending.

Had he paid close attention to our report, Edifice Complex: Where Has All the Money Gone, he would have noted the more disturbing trend that school districts which receive more funding per-pupil spend a higher share of their funds on buildings, and less on instructional costs. What we wrote then was:

It is hard to blame school boards and school superintendents for focusing on buildings and grounds. After all, it is easier (and more costly) to put up new walls or stadia than to improve teaching or stop bullying. Better buildings and grounds make school superintendents feel useful. Getting such projects approved may earn one a reputation as a “can-do” leader suitable to run a larger or more prestigious school district. New buildings may even serve as symbols of the local public schools. Local Home and School Associations, and even supposedly hard-headed business leaders, may succumb to a kind of “palace envy” when neighboring school districts sport fancy buildings. Yet bricks and mortar cannot teach children—teachers and instructional materials do.

John may wish to rebut me and claim that fantastic schools do improve learning. I welcome that. But I would note that what prompted this discussion was claims during Gov. Rendell’s “Tax You More Bus Tour” that – with a mere 11.7% increase in support to school districts – that students would not have book or pencils sharpeners, not that they couldn’t connect their musical keyboards to computers, as they are in Kennard-Dale High School.

I think that debating school funding with those facts sheds a very different light on things.

And just to emphasize the point, here are some Edifice Complex stories: