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What Are Expensive School Facilities Really Worth?

At $578 million, the Robert F. Kennedy School in Los Angeles is the most expensive public school ever built in America. It features a high-tech swimming pool, a chic auditorium, vaulted ceilings, luxury amenities and a design aesthetic worthy of a spread in Architectural Digest. ABC News reports that the school is more expensive than the “Bird’s Nest” stadium in Beijing, China, built for the 2008 Olympics, and the Wall Street Journal notes that it cost more than L.A.’s Staples sports center.

And while a half-billion dollar public school complex would be jarring enough to taxpayers during plush budget times, this public school was constructed at a time when the district faces a $640 million deficit. It’s a red carpet reminder of why California and so many other states face severe budget shortfalls.

But Joe Agron, the editor-in-chief of the school construction publication American School & University, said that “Districts want a showpiece for the community, a really impressive environment for learning.” When asked by the Wall Street Journal whether the school’s plush amenities and architectural flourishes were necessary, Thomas Rubin, a consultant for Los Angeles’ bond oversight committee, was blunt: “Did we have to do that? Hell no. But there’s no accounting for taste,” Rubin stated.

But it’s neither “impressive environments” nor good taste that will raise academic achievement, boost graduation rates or cultivate a thirst for learning. Nor is it half-billion dollar school complexes. In fact, many very low-performing school districts throughout the country spend tremendous amounts of taxpayer resources on public school facilities and have hefty per-pupil expenditures. In Los Angeles, conservative estimates put per-pupil spending in excess of $11,000; other estimates put the figure closer to $30,000 per pupil. Yet just 15 percent of 8th grade students are proficient in reading and less than half of students graduate high school. The WSJ notes:

The K-12 complex isn’t merely an overwrought paean to the nation’s most celebrated liberal political family. It’s a jarring reminder that money doesn’t guarantee successthough it certainly beautifies failure.”

Unfortunately, the profligate spending on the Robert F. Kennedy public school isn’t an isolated case. Los Angeles taxpayers are also on the¬†hook for a $232 million Visual and Performing Arts High School as well as the $377 million Edward Roybal Learning Center.

While these schools were constructed in part using $20 billion in bonds approved by Los Angeles residents, the spend now, pay later mentality permeating a public education sector dominated by special interest groups has been bolstered by continual federal bailouts courtesy of the Obama administration.

These federal bailouts – $100 billion in new money given to the Department of Education through last year’s “stimulus” followed by another $10 billion teacher union bailout this August – prevent states from making the long-term budgetary decisions necessary to ease the burden on taxpayers and create systemic education reforms. What’s needed are meaningful reforms such as those spearheaded by Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, who capped spending on school construction by placing a moratorium on new school bond measures. Gov. Daniels explained his decision to the Weekly Standard:

When we were first campaigning, I started to notice, we’d drive through these rural counties, these very poor counties, and we’d drive up over a hill and on the other side you’d see a brand-new high school that looked like Frank Lloyd Wright had just been there. Enormous gold-plated buildings. It turned out we had higher capital expenditures for educational construction per square foot than any other state. There’d be a bond issue and then the architects and contractors would run amok, spending money on things that had nothing to do with academics. I understand why it happens. The school board likes it because they get to play designer for a year. But we couldn’t afford it.”

Expensive school buildings and staggering per-pupil spending won’t improve education in low-performing school districts such as Los Angeles. The district may have just spent $578 million on a public school, but if it produces the same poor results that have defined public education in many school districts across the country, would parents choose to send their children there?

It’s a safe bet to say that given the choice between luxury amenities and literacy, most parents would choose the latter. That is why students are far better served by policies that empower parents to choose a school that best meets their child’s needs, not policies that perpetuate the failed status quo of throwing more scarce taxpayer resources into the monolithic public school system.

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