Bulk of CA Education Budget is Spent on New Construction

Lawmakers say they want to help California’s failing schools. They say they are concerned about the dropout rate and low test scores in California’s public schools.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson appeared at a hearing Tuesday in the state Capitol. He acknowledged that California’s schools are in a fiscal emergency and that shrinking state resources are forcing school boards to make drastic cuts to curriculum and teachers.

Then he turned around and said the state needed to plan for spending $117 billion on school construction projects in the next decade.

The hearing was entirely about building architecturally pleasing, green schools and “modernizing” existing schools into state-of-the-art structures. The state plans on “investing” another $117 billion into new school construction and modernizing because they say that the last $117 billion was so successful.

The hearing proved that lawmakers are deaf to the real fiscal emergency in the state; or are so incompetent they don’t understand the ramifications of their decades-long spending sprees.

For our schools…

Tom Torlakson, a former Democratic assemblyman, commissioned a study from the University of California, Berkeley Center for Cities and Schools on “leveraging the state’s role for quality school facilities in sustainable communities.”

That’s a bureaucratic way of saying that the state is planning on spending a boatload of money on building new, green schools — $117 billion, in fact.

In order to justify that, lawmakers got Torlakson to commission a state-funded university to produce a report validating that the state’s schools were indeed in dire condition and need more upgrades and overhauling, or need to be torn down and replaced with new schools.

Schools decaying

“The past decade has been one of unprecedented investment into the world’s most ambitious infrastructure venture,”  Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, said during his opening remarks.

“Green is the new hope of money at the beginning of the school year,” Torlakson added. He said the challenge now is how to provide the best learning environment for the students in order to “educate the whole child.”

California educators talk incessantly about educating the whole child, but rarely accomplish this. Montessori education has succeeded in this concept, while the California public school model fails to even rank respectably on national tests.

So the answer is to build prettier schools.

Torlakson said that $36 billion of taxpayer funds have been “invested” into building new schools and modernizing old schools. This was done using $66 billion in bonds that were passed by voters at the local level and matched by the state over the last 10 years, according to Torlakson.

While there still is money left in the school facility building plan, Torlakson said they were going to run out of money before all of the building projects could be completed.

“When you visit the schools that have had this investment, you can see the enthusiasm in the students,” Torlakson said. He added that, at the brand new schools, “the students and faculty are thrilled.”

‘Modernization’

“Modernization” is a nice was of describing remodeling the state’s decaying schools because of years of deferred maintenance.

After letting thousands of public schools decay for so long, lawmakers set out on a building spree. Lowenthal claimed that they have “great results” from the last $117 billion spent.

Lowenthal talked about running another state bond on the 2014 ballot to pay for the next round of building projects and upgrades.

The Office of Public School Construction presented updates on the state’s general obligation bond amounts, remaining fund amounts and the finding status of current projects funding.

As with most state reports, numbers were presented to look as if grand accomplishments have been made. But the construction reports were presented in terms of how many classrooms were modernized.

Of the 129,000 classrooms that have been built or modernized, only 63 schools in the state were remodeled or had new construction. But $31.4 billion was spent on this endeavor.

A representative from the Los Angeles Unified School District said that they have just completed the construction of 20 new schools.

Study

California’s K-12 Educational Infrastructure Investments: Leveraging the State’s Role for Quality School Facilities in sustainable Communities” was done by Jeffrey Vincent, PhD, of the Center for Cities and Schools at UC Berkeley.

The study concluded conveniently that California’s K-12 school facilities will need the same amount of funding they’ve had in the last decade — about $117 billion. But there are a few changes the report’s author wants to see:

1) Equitably distribute these benefits across all schools; and

2) Enhance the collaboration of LEAs and local governments for for aligning and leveraging the substantial public investments in land development patterns, K-12 infrastructure, and other infrastructure sectors.

The overriding push behind all of this “investment” is SB 375 the 2008 law that’s the companion bill to AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. SB 375 was sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. It encourages the construction of high-rises and mass transit supposedly to help the environment.

The other angle is to make schools more community oriented by turning them into community centers. The facilities would be used as more than just a school, with adult jobs programs, community outreach programs and training. The K-12 education seems secondary.

Everyone who spoke at the hearing commented on the importance of creating beautiful environments for children and teachers — and said that everyone is happier in architecturally pleasing buildings.

What about education?

Of the $117 billion to be spent, and the $117 billion already spent on buildings, there was no talk of California’s failing students, no talk of improving test scores, or how the state’s schools rank near the bottom of the testing chart in the country.

A study last year by the National Center for Education Evaluation found that, of 15,277 schools in 49 states deemed eligible to receive federal grants for failing schools, 2,720 are located in California.

But our Legislature is focused on making the facilities pretty, and plans to ask voters to pass another exorbitant series of bonds to cover the $117 billion price tag.

Lawmakers and state bureaucrats at the hearing kept referring to the “investment” Californians have made in the state’s K-12 infrastructure. But they are largely ignoring the many studies and reports telling them that the schools are failing the state’s children, and public high schools have become dropout factories.

Schools and Sustainable Communities

State officials and lawmakers have taken their eyes off of the education ball. Focused intently instead on facilities and sustainable communities, the study is geared almost entirely to urban areas.

In a section of the study titled, “Why School Facilities Matter,” Vincent claims that facilities affect teaching and learning. I suppose if the acoustic ceiling is falling on the heads of the students, this may impact the learning environment. But building Taj Mahal structures designed by Architectural Digest award winners is merely another state boondoggle worthy of the High-Speed Train-to-nowhere award.

The real motive became clear when the study also revealed that school facilities matter because of how “they affect land use, growth, travel patterns, VMT, and housing choices.” It’s all about the walk–ride–take public transportation-to-work agenda from SB 375. And this is to be done from an apartment nearby the urban school, not from the suburbs or a remote ranch.

Inadequate and inequitable funding

Vincent hammered on the need for leveling the playing field for all schools to receive a fair share of the new construction, modernization and annual maintenance. And while Lowenthal touted the success of the construction program, Vincent said that, overall, modernization projects fell short.

Despite largely ignoring school maintenance over many decades, and instead of doing maintenance as needed, Vincent recommended adopting the building industry recommendation of 2 percent to 4 percent replacement/restoration every year, which he estimated would cost $5 billion annually. The building industry recommendation is self-serving, and Vincent’s acceptance of it is naive.

Vincent said that local wealth needed to be a factor in funding considerations for schools, primarily because lower wealth schools receive less money.

Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Oakland, challenged Vincent on which standard of wealth he had used for school districts, and said she had found as a school board member that  some school districts just didn’t want to pony up the funds for school improvements, and instead wanted the state to fund the entire project. Hancock said they should be wary of these districts.

Vincent made several recommendations to the panel including that the state should promote more planning on sustainable communities and green building standards.

Another green boondoggle

It’s difficult to identify which came first–the corrupt politician, or the incompetent nincompoops who gravitate to the corruption.

Either way, California lawmakers have made it clear that they are not going to balance the state budget or make necessary cuts to welfare and social programs. Nor will they implement any real pension reform or education reform.

They have also made it abundantly clear that they plan on pushing for more tax increases, fee increases and additional regulations into the lives and budgets of the state’s responsible, hard-working citizens.

Lawmakers have already demonstrated that they are either corrupt, incompetent, or just don’t care when it comes to the state’s finances. This educational facilities sustainability plan exemplifies this.

(Katy Grimes is a longtime political analyst, writer and journalist, and CalWatchdog’s news reporter. Originally posted on CalWatchdog.)