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US public schools are going broke, yet some spend like a kid in a candy store

The $578 million price tag for the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complex in Los Angeles is hard to justify at a time when many schools are turning to desperate measures to save teachers' jobs. Voters must respond by pushing profligate public schools to be as frugal as charter schools.

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The district spent $578 million – or about $135,000 per student – to construct the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complex on the site of the former Ambassador Hotel. This amount made the project the most expensive school ever constructed in US history at a time when the district is flat broke. (Indeed, just last week, the LAUSD school board voted unanimously to seek corporate sponsorships to pay for school programs like sports, music, and art.)

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Although the LAUSD committed to this project before the enormity of the recession became apparent, the Kennedy complex is only the latest in the district's building binge of 131 schools.

It calls into question the way taxpayer money is spent. For example, The Wall Street Journal noted that another recently opened public school – the Visual and Performing Arts High School – was originally budgeted at $70 million. It ended up costing $232 million.

Nevertheless, voters in L.A. continue to approve such spending, in the process becoming enablers. Indeed, since 1997, they have OK'd more than $20 billion in school bonds.

The only hard evidence of discontent is the support taxpayers have given to the establishment of charter schools. The LAUSD has more charter schools than any other school system in the country, enrolling about 9 percent of its students. Strictly from a financial viewpoint, charter schools are, without question, a bargain. They can be constructed for a quarter of the cost of most schools in the district.

Charter schools: great bang for the buck

For example, Green Dot Public Schools, a leading charter school operator in the L.A. area, has built seven schools there to serve 4,300 mainly low-income students for a total of less than $85 million. Its graduation rate is nearly twice that of the school district as a whole.

It's true that charter schools don't have to enroll special education students. But there's another factor given short shrift in the debate. Under Proposition 39, which was passed by California voters in 2000, districts are obligated to provide charter schools with facilities that are reasonably equivalent to those of other schools in the district.

IN PICTURES: Graduation 2010

About 60,000 students in the LAUSD attend charter schools. But administrators have dragged their feet on meeting the "reasonably equivalent" standard. They do so by denying charter schools the use of existing facilities. As a result, many have had to rent space. That eats up about 13 percent of their general funds on average, a recent Los Angeles Times commentary notes.

As long as lack of prudence characterizes fiscal policy, school districts everywhere will remain in dire straits. But let's not forget that, ultimately, voters possess the power to demand financial reform. If they don't, then they have no basis for complaint.

Walt Gardner taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and was a lecturer in the UCLA Graduate School of Education. His Reality Check blog is published in Education Week.


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