So much of the literature and organizing on school finance comes down to a two-word demand: more money. If we get the revenue, we can provide better education.
But like I mentioned last time, an obvious question haunts that demand: where is this money going? What apparatus will spend it? Will they manage it well? Can they handle it?
Parents, students, and community members are struggling with this question now that American Rescue Plan money is available. Do districts have the capacity to spend money well? What does that look like?
An important question
Rightwingers, doped up on libertarianism, love to say that ‘government-run’ schools waste money. This question about where money goes and how its spent feels like that kind of concern.
But it should be a left wing concern as well. We want our resources distributed well, properly, and fully. We want efficiency and productivity too! We don’t want waste. We don’t want inadequate services. We just don’t think private property relations and their associated apparatuses are efficient and productive, particularly when it comes to doing what’s best for everyone and even more intensely when it comes to education.
I’ve been writing about possible revenue schemes all year, whether it’s a no-cost loan from the Federal Reserve or tax-base sharing. But whatever the source of the funding, there’ll have to be a receiving apparatus to process, distribute, and manage that money. That apparatus needs to have the right structure and capacity to do the work.
This question of the revenue distribution and management apparatus needs to be answered at the same time–if not before–the question of the revenue’s source.
In Philly, our problem is toxic schools: a $4.5 billion infrastructure need. Let’s say we get the money. Which apparatus can and should handle that project? (There’s a tradition of urban studies and planning that researches this very question, Akira Drake Rodriguez’s work for instance.) Insofar as there are school infrastructure problems all over the country, the Philly example is a good one to follow.
Greg Windle has an idea about this.
He grew up in Philly and used to write for The Philadelphia Public School Notebook, an excellent education journalism outlet (now Philadelphia Chalkbeat). Greg did a bunch of reporting on school infrastructure in the 2010s, some of which spurred some important initiatives when it came to community participation in infrastructure resource distribution.
Through his reporting, he realized a few things. Of course the problems in Philly’s school infrastructure are the result of generations of revenue problems caught up with racial capitalism. But one everyday reality that contributes to the ongoing crisis is the district’s inability to handle infrastructure maintenance.
That’s why Greg has come to believe that infrastructure in Philadelphia schools needs its own apparatus, rather than being part of the District office’s responsibility. He found a precedent for this proposal in Washington, DC in the form of the Office of Education Facilities Modernation (OEFM.
How it worked in DC
The Office of Education Facilities Modernization was founded in 2007 as part of the Reform Act passed that year by city government. Before the change, the Board of Education oversaw an Office of Facilities Management. After the Reform Act–inspired by problems in the school–the new OEFM stood apart from the Board and was overseen by the Department of Education.
Here’s how the standalone office related to the rest of the apparatuses governing education in Washington, DC:
The OEFM was part of a Facilities Master Plan the city undertook to modernize its school buildings. I don’t know the exact history, but the apparatus only lasted five years. We know from this document that the OEFM was brought back under department the DCPS in 2012 as a Department.
Just in 2011, the OEFM as a separate entity accomplished the following:
12 Modernization projects were underway in 2011, within budget, on time with established School Improvement Teams (SIT).
Modernized a total of 1,077,950 square feet for education facilities in FY11
Cleared a total of 27,067 work orders in FY11
That sounds pretty good to me, though I’m not sure what to compare it to. What’re the numbers for Philly, eg? Do they compare? Are those numbers a significant improvement over pre-2007 numbers? Also, I’d like to know why the 2007 Reform Act structure ended in 2012. I have to imagine there were politics there.
Similarly, you can imagine the politics of proposing this structure in Philly. While the District certainly is over capacity as it is, and this would take a big stinking heap off their plate, I bet they–by which I mean the school board, superintendent, and various staff– might be apprehensive about giving up control over facilities, if not because of the sheer amount of money it entails.
A group I organize with is planning a political education event on this stuff with Greg, which I’m really looking forward to!