The $578 Million School
Being a professor, I tend to notice stories about education. While there are the occasional positive pieces (such as success stories), the news generally seems to focus on the negative aspects of education. While it is always reasonable to be wary of making inferences based on media coverage, the American education system does seem to have serious problems.
One obvious problem is that the economic downturn has led some states to reduced spending by cutting the education budget. Given that problem, the headline grabbing $578 million school in LA seems rather bizarre. After all, it seems to be an act of insanity to spend that much on a single school while teachers are being laid off and the education system is facing rather serious problems.
While a $578 million school is a new record, there are other high price schools. Also, those outside academics might find it interesting that universities rather often keep building new buildings and renovating old ones even during budget problems. This occurs even when the woes are severe enough to result in faculty and staff being fired.
Long ago, as a matter of luck, I got to speak to a major administrator about how schools can build new buildings while being “forced” to fire faculty/staff and cut support for students. I was informed that the budgets for building and renovation are distinct from those used to pay faculty/staff and provide support. Being very young and naive at the time, I asked why money could not be moved. After all, money is money-it is not like the dollars for building where composed of a magical substance (“buildonium”) that could not be touched by faculty, staff or students. Also, I was well aware that people do move money from one budget area to another (usually from faculty/staff salaries or student funding to somewhere else). It was explained to me that the allocation was fixed and could not be changed. Of course, this was a circular answer (it cannot be moved because it cannot be moved), but even then I had the good sense not to point out such things to the suits.
Since I was rather suspicious of suits then, I inferred that the money for building was fixed and generally safe because the money being spent went to friends, allies, and relatives of the folks who vote on such allocations. After all, a major university construction project would mean some rather sweet profits for the contractors. This suspicion was confirmed when I later learned of the not uncommon (but illegal) practice of contractors doing “free” work for certain administrators who were in charge of construction and renovation.
Now that I am much older, I do see that there can be legitimate reasons for putting money into infrastructure even when there is a budget shortage. After all, when buildings are literally falling apart, then they need to be fixed. Of course, I still believe that the main focus of education spending should be on the core function of education, namely education and not construction.
Turning back to the $587 million school, while a pleasant and well equipped learning environment can make a difference, it makes more sense to try to create the greatest benefit from the money. So, rather than pouring $587 million into a single school, it would be better to use that money to improve education on a broader scale. Also, it makes more sense to focus resources on the core functions of education. Of course, this alone will not solve the education woes. To use an analogy, the education system seems to be like a drifting ship whose core structure is decayed and fractured. Patching here and there and even adding some fancy cabins to the ship will not solve the core problems. The ship needs to be put on a definite course to a dry dock. Once there, it needs to be rebuilt.
America’s education system at the university level is still the best in the world (maybe). However, it is critical that our K-12 system be elevated to at least this level of excellence. This is not to say that the universities do not need improvement. They do and, of course, the rest of the world is working hard to catch up and surpass us.