School Choice and the Scheme of Crumbling Schools


Clay Johnson’s argument in support of school choice in the Chariho school district, where he is a school committee member, is well timed, considering the governor’s state of the state address calling for another billion dollars in school construction spending over the next five years:

Another scapegoat would have been found if the charters did not exist. It seems anathema to government boards to spend less year-over-year. Experience tells us, it is always easier to spend other people’s money. Despite the school age population trending down, school budgets continue to rise. School districts justify these increases as cost-of-living increases, contractual obligations and the inability to reduce costs when such a small number of students leave.

In a charter school, when enrollment drops, tuition revenue drops; consequently, expenses must be adjusted down. This budgetary pressure is the same in other industries subject to free-market pressures. In the commercial airline industry, where a large portion of costs are fixed (the capital cost of the plane, fuel and crew), airlines don’t fly a plane with only one passenger and charge that passenger the cost of a fully booked flight. As we saw during the Great Recession, many local businesses adjusted by reducing expenses when sales fell dramatically.

For many decades, government-run public schools have found themselves insulated from free-market economic pressures. With taxpayers as their cash register, and the inertia of the annual budgeting process, budgets increased, buildings were constructed through more and more bonding, and salary and benefits expanded with little argument. After all, when times are good, a majority of taxpayers have other things to worry about.

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As personnel costs have gone up and up in order to please powerful teachers unions, things like maintenance have been ignored.  In a GoLocalProv article out today Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello states that a dilapidated school building “sends a message that what you’re doing there is not the the most important thing and there are better places to be.”  That’s true in a way that the Cranston Democrat probably doesn’t intend.  Over decades, the people who run that school have decided that it was more important to hire administrators and maintain compensation levels for their workforce well beyond private-sector comparisons.

And why not?  Now that anybody can walk into a school and see that it is not as it should be, the politicians will come back to taxpayers for more spending… at first with a heavy reliance on debt and then building the increase into their budgets for the other spending that they prefer.

If school choice options become more accessible, the scheme will fall apart.  Why rebuild a school whose administration has allowed it to crumble when others are available? More importantly, if districts have to compete for students, giving parents a comforting place for an initial visit will become a higher priority.

In the meantime, Rhode Islanders should be wary of Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s plan to make a “once in a generation” expenditure on school buildings.  Let’s see the underlying problem fixed.  Let’s see state government identify the reasons our schools have been permitted to fall to this condition and address them.  Otherwise, we’re just being had.

  • Mike678

    Just like bridges and roads (or your car and house), if you don’t maintain them they will fall into disrepair and cost you more in the long run. I laughed when a RI School Supervisor being interviewed was complaining about a 40 year old school building and demanding a new building. I watched this while sitting in a 200 year old building that had been maintained and was in great shape… Short-term thinking got us here and it appears our “leadership” haven’t learned from it.

  • zonmoy

    wonder how much of those personnel costs are actually teachers and not a bloated and overpaid administration like many corporations have as their pay systems now. so how much are the equivalent of the school CEO making now.