President Obama will likely call for more education spending in his jobs speech scheduled for Thursday, and it’s anticipated that he will make a pitch specifically for new federal funding for school construction. But federally financed school construction is problematic on constitutional and practical grounds.
The U.S. Constitution does not mention the word education and certainly doesn’t permit Washington to fund the construction of schools, which have historically been, and should remain, under the direction of states and localities. In calling for federal funding for school construction—which has been rare and indirect—President Obama is once again exercising federal overreach in education.
Practically speaking, the federal government is also the most inefficient mechanism for financing school construction. If Washington funds school construction, it must pay prevailing wages, which increase costs, on average, by 22 percent. Because of Davis–Bacon labor laws, schools that receive federal funding for school construction would typically have to hire union workers, increasing costs and preventing non-union construction companies from having a seat at the bidding table.
For all of these reasons, school construction (and maintenance) should be undertaken by state and local governments—not by Washington. But Washington can play a role in removing some of the federal red tape that binds the hands of school leaders. If states and localities were given more control over education funding—the ability to, for example, opt-out of No Child Left Behind and target resources in a way that would be meet student needs—they could put funding toward projects that are pressing and important. And if school construction and maintenance is deemed important for a particular community, they could put resources toward improving or expanding school buildings.
For their part, local schools also need to examine their own spending inefficiencies over the decades, particularly in the realm of personnel. Since the 1970s, student enrollment has increased just 7 percent in public schools. Over the same period, non-teaching staff grew by 83 percent. This explosion in non-teaching staff positions has resulted in no improvement for student achievement, but it has created a tremendous drain on state budgets.
But beyond the immediate constitutional and practical concerns, is new federal spending on school buildings the best way to spend precious taxpayer resources? At a time when more and more states are moving away from the old “four-walls” model of schooling—away from brick-and-mortar buildings and toward virtual education—the Obama Administration wants to subsidize it. States are enacting incredibly exciting innovations in online learning, democratizing access to content and ensuring that students have access to quality teachers. The federal government is chronically behind the game, slow to innovate and unable to adapt to the changing technological landscape. This latest push for Washington-built schools is no exception.
Federal spending on education has nearly tripled since the 1970s, with no increase in results to show for it. President Obama gifted the Department of Education nearly $100 billion through the stimulus in 2009, and just a year later, he signed a $10 billion public education bailout. According to a new poll by the journal Education Next, when asked “Do you think that taxes to fund public schools around the nation should increase, decrease or stay about the same?” just 35 percent supported increasing education spending. The same likely holds true for spending on school construction.
Funneling more money through the dead hand of the federal government is not the answer to improving education, and that includes ill-advised school construction funding.