If It Ain't Broke, Don't Spend $25 Billion to Fix It

Included in the $450 billion spending plan President Obama requested last week was $25 billion for school renovation and upgrades. According a report on Mlive.com, Detroit Public Schools’ slice would be $348 million. In 2008, U.S. schools spent around $59 billion on school construction, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

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In promoting his proposal, President Obama said, “Every child deserves a great school — and we can give it to them, if we act now.” Unfortunately, renovated school buildings don’t automatically produce a great education, which is the thing everyone really wants. In addition, Michigan appears perfectly capable of borrowing and spending massive amounts on school building projects without any help from the feds.

Specifically, NCES data show that Michigan schools spent $311 million in 1989 on school construction. By 2003, this had grown to a whopping $2.297 billion, an inflation-adjusted increase of nearly 400 percent. The spending has tapered off some in recent years, but in 2008 (the latest year data are available), the level was still an inflation-adjusted 140 percent higher than in 1989. Over those 20 years, schools here spent some $25 billion on construction, an average of $1.25 billion annually.

Michigan’s borrow-and-build school construction spending is hardly unique in this regard. The Cato Institute’s Adam Schaeffer found that nationwide school construction spending rose an inflation-adjusted 150 percent from 1989 to 2008.

The idea that students need newer and shinier buildings might have had some plausibility a couple generations ago, but no more. Learning today is less confined to brick-and-mortar school rooms than ever before. With online learning, students have access to lessons practically anywhere they go. As a result they’re learning from home, the mall, neighborhood parks, and numerous other locales.  

For an example of how online learning’s changing the educational model, check out this video about the state’s largest virtual school — Michigan Virtual University: