The hubris of the American education establishment is on full display at the new Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Los Angeles, price tag: $578 million.
It’s not just the pensions that are gold-plated in today’s schools. Read this description of the new school from an article by the Associated Press:
At RFK, the features include fine art murals and a marble memorial depicting the complex’s namesake, a manicured public park, a state-of-the-art swimming pool and preservation of pieces of the original hotel [at the site where the school was built].
Partly by circumstance and partly by design, the Los Angeles Unified School District has emerged as the mogul of Taj Mahals.
The RFK complex follows on the heels of two other LA schools among the nation’s costliest — the $377 million Edward R. Roybal Learning Center, which opened in 2008, and the $232 million Visual and Performing Arts High School that debuted in 2009.
Los Angeles is not alone, however, in building big. Some of the most expensive schools are found in low-performing districts — New York City has a $235 million campus; New Brunswick, N.J., opened a $185 million high school in January.
Nationwide, dozens of schools have surpassed $100 million with amenities including atriums, orchestra-pit auditoriums, food courts, even bamboo nooks. The extravagance has led some to wonder where the line should be drawn and whether more money should be spent on teachers.
The Roybal school, mentioned above, “grew to encompass a dance studio with cushioned maple floors, a modern kitchen with a restaurant-quality pizza oven, a 10-acre park and teacher planning rooms between classrooms.” But the real kicker for the Los Angeles school district comes in the paragraph I snipped above, which I now present:
The pricey schools have come during a sensitive period for the nation’s second-largest school system: Nearly 3,000 teachers have been laid off over the past two years, the academic year and programs have been slashed. The district also faces a $640 million shortfall and some schools persistently rank among the nation’s lowest performing.
Meanwhile, schools’ complaints about their funding shortfalls led Congress this month to pass a $10 billion “EduJobs” bailout. Twelve percent of the money, or $1.2 billion, went to none other than the state of California, Frederick Hess notes at National Review Online.
Spending has been rising on more than construction, Hess reports:
[The] National Center for Education Statistics, for instance, reports that, nationally, current K–12 per-pupil expenditures increased from 2003–04 to 2006–2007 (the most recent school year for which the NCES reports spending) by 17 percent — from $8,310 to $9,683. Indeed NCES data make clear that the last two years have been the first time in more than a half-century that per-pupil spending has declined from the year before. And even in the past two years, job losses in K–12 education have been much more modest than in the private sector. It’s befuddling that [Education Secretary Arne] Duncan is making excuses for officials bemoaning their twice-a-century belt tightening, rather than encouraging them to take a hard look at benefits, staffing, operations, and management.
Duncan, who singled out for praise the $1.2 billion that EduJobs is funneling to California, also might want to consider the recent Pepperdine study of 52 California school districts. This study reported that spending rose 21.9 percent from 2003–04 to 2008–09, outpacing both state income growth and inflation. On a per-pupil basis, spending actually jumped 25.8 percent over that period, while classroom spending as a share of total outlays declined from 59 percent to 57.8 percent. Where did the money go? Pay rose by 28 percent for certificated supervisors and administrators and by 44 percent for classified supervisors and administrators.
I’ve written before that inflation-adjusted, per-pupil spending has been climbing in Georgia as well, with little to show for it in the way of performance improvements. The sad thing is that too few teachers seem to have realized that their bosses are their biggest enemies.
Majestic new campuses, bloated administrative payrolls — when school systems have cut out this sort of waste, we’ll talk about whether more money would truly serve our students well.