February 11, 2009

fancy-church  shack

An underfunded regular public school; a money-draining charter school

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I can see that school buildings are going to be a big topic for us for the foreseeable future. There’s the feds’ desperate need to blow money on something, anything, in the “recovery” bill (they’re no longer even bothering to call it a “stimulus” bill, apparently). And Jay’s post on school construction last week generated some interesting conversation in the comment thread.

Then last week opponents of the bill had a lot of fun spotlighting its provision of $89 million for school construction in Milwaukee, despite the fact that Milwaukee has had major enrollment declines leading to lots of empty and “underused” buildings, its buildings are deemed to be in good condition, the city has no plans for any construction projects, and just last year it had a major scandal centering around the waste of tens of millions of dollars in construction funding.

But here’s something I don’t think anyone outside Milwaukee has highlighted yet. In the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s story on the funding, somebody at the paper (presumably a bemused editor) inserted the following subtitle above a section of the story:

What is “Construction”?

Somebody get Socrates on the line, because it’s a good question. As a commenter pointed out on Jay’s post last week, once money goes into the system, we can’t be sure what it really gets spent on. We know how much money was budgeted for “construction,” but typically there’s nobody checking to see what was actually bought with those “construction” funds.

Sure enough, the Journal Sentinel quotes a state Democratic spokesperson saying that all of that yummy yummy swag for “school construction” could legitimately be spent on “school modernization.”

Next month’s headline: “What is ‘School Modernization’?”

Do these sound like conditions under which the money will be spent wisely? And don’t kid yourself that Milwaukee is somehow a special exception, and the stimulus money is going to be well spent elsewhere.

Suppose you don’t believe the vast mountain of empirical research that Jay cited last week. Let’s just drop all that science into the toilet bowl and flush. Even so, can anyone believe that money will be well used when it’s handed over to a system that has no real transparency, much less effective oversight, never mind accountability for results – and that is run by people who also just happen to derive political power by diverting school funding into an enormous gravy train of featherbedding, pork, etc.?

If we’re dumb enough to hand over the money under those circumstances, why would they not divert it to the gravy train? I’m amazed the schools in the government monopoly system aren’t even worse than they are.

But wait. There’s yet another school building story on the horizon. This one broke out in the edreformblogosphere just yesterday.


They built it with surplus “school construction” money

Like Milwaukee and pretty much every other city, St. Louis has long-term declining enrollment, but that didn’t stop it from pouring tons of money into school construction over the past few decades. Now St. Louis has a bunch of empty school buildings it needs to unload, so it’s going to sell them off.

But not everyone is allowed to bid on the empty school buildings. Joanne Jacobs puts it succinctly: “The school board has banned sales of buildings to liquor stores, landfills, distilleries, sex shops and charter schools.”

Read that again: Liquor stores, landfills, distilleries, sex shops and charter schools.

Not much more to say, is there? Charters are the one sector of the government-owned education system that is 1) growing fast, 2) willing to take on the most disadvantaged, toughest-to-teach kids, and 3) producing improved results, and they do it with less money – especially less construction money! – than the regular system. But they aren’t allowed to buy – not take for free, but buy, as in purchase at market value, by paying actual money – the city’s empty buildings.



Some typical St. Louis charter schools

I’m with Matt – if the system’s defenders don’t realize they’re destroying millions of children’s lives in order to funnel money to a corrupt gravy train, it’s only because they don’t want to know.

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