The Public Schools Edifice Complex

How much money should a school receive for a student it no longer has to educate? And, is taxpayer money being wisely spent on classroom instruction or school construction? Those are two questions for which taxpayers need answers.

A debate is brewing in Harrisburg whereby traditional public school districts are claiming that cyber charter schools are draining their funds and raising property taxes. But the facts suggest that the problem in traditional public schools is not that they lack education tax dollars, but rather they unwisely spend the nearly $22 billion they get from taxpayers.

Consider the following. From 1996-97 to 2005-06, public school spending on construction and debt increased a whopping 103% increase, while administration and support services grew 62%. Instructional expenditures grew by 51% in this time. Thus, construction spending grew from 8.7% to 11.3% of total expenditures, while the proportion spent on instruction declined. Spending on luxurious buildings and additional bureaucrats continues to grow as a percentage of total education spending.

Also consider that between 1996-97 and 2005-2006, Pennsylvania’s public schools added over 43,000 staff—teachers, administrators, and support staff—while enrollment increased by only 26,000. Thus, for every new student, the public schools added 1.6 staff.

Our conclusion is that many school districts suffer from an “Edifice Complex”—a chronic problem of putting buildings and non-instructional spending ahead of the education of children.

Pennsylvania teachers are, on the whole, reasonably well paid—Pennsylvania public school teachers earn, on average, 149.96% of the mean countywide salary for all full-time positions. Interestingly, however, there is seemingly little tendency for higher spending school districts to put more resources to the classroom. Indeed, higher spending districts spend a lower percentage of total expenditures on instruction. Similarly, there is a negative correlation between total school spending and teacher pay—higher spending districts do not reward their teachers.

While higher spending school districts spend a smaller percentage of their budgets on instruction, they spend a greater percentage on construction. In other words, when given additional resources, many local school boards and superintendents seem inclined to support football fields and Taj Mahal buildings rather than teachers and books.

Most disturbingly, there is a strong inverse relationship between the percentage of total education spending going to construction and that going to instruction. In other words, school districts that choose to spend more on construction end up spending less on instruction. Notably, this inverse relationship between instruction and construction stays almost exactly the same when controlling for changes in enrollment and for size of school districts.

But instead of trying to address the problems with their spending habits, school boards are demanding more funding from state taxpayers, and attacking cyber and charter schools for “taking funding away.” In truth, charter and cyber schools save taxpayers money because they receive only a portion of the funds school districts spend per-pupil—about 73%. Thus, districts keep a significant share of funding for students they no longer have to educate.

Cyber and charter schools help school districts by reducing overcrowding, mitigating the need for new construction, and lowering class sizes while resulting in an increase in per-pupil spending in district schools. Cyber and charter schools also promote increased innovation in education, and often take hard-to-educate students from districts to offer them a personalized curriculum.

Instead of attacking cyber and charter schools, school reformers should attempt to apply the charter 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. To achieve this end, our research suggests that:

  • Families should be able to choose the public school they send their children to, and schools should compete to attract students.
  • State and local funding should follow the child—schools should only receive funding when families choose to send their children there.
  • All public schools should have charters that have to be renewed periodically. When schools fail to perform up to standards, they should have their charter revoked.

By adopting these types of reforms, school boards can perhaps cure their “Edifice Complex” and start focusing on what is best for their students.


Robert Maranto, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar at the Commonwealth Foundation, is an associate professor of political science and public administration at Villanova University and Nathan Benefield is Director of Policy Research with the Commonwealth Foundation (, an independent, nonprofit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.