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Lance T. Izumi - Contributor
[Courtesty of Pacific Research Institute]

Lance Izumi is Director of Education Studies for the Pacific Research Institute and
Senior Fellow in California Studies. He is a leading expert in education policy and the author of several major PRI studies. [go to Izumi index]

Thoughts on the Proposed State School Bond
Is Prop 55 a good idea?
[Lance T. Izumi] 2/27/04

Of the propositions on the March 2nd ballot, the deficit bond and the spending cap have garnered the most media attention. However, findings in a recent Pacific Research Institute report should cause voters to weigh extra carefully the pros and cons of the massive $12.3 bond for school facilities that will also appear on the ballot.

The proposed bond follows on the heels of the $13.5- billion school bond approved by California voters in 2002. Education officials claim the current measure is needed because the previous bond didn't cover all of the supposedly needed facilities projects. Pictures of leaky ceilings and overcrowded classrooms provide vivid imagery for bond boosters, but the reality is that a significant portion of those problems can be attributed to an appallingly inefficient and wasteful school construction process.

The PRI report, No Place to Learn: California's School Facilities Crisis, found that it takes on average six years to construct a new school. In comparison, it took just over one year to build the Empire State Building. In the same time it takes to build a school in California, the 31-mile Channel Tunnel linking England and France was built, a project involving 10 major contractors, a quarter of a million engineering drawings, and 220 banks. The natural question: why does it take so long to build a school?

Part of the problem is the mountain of red tape and Byzantine bureaucracy. California's Field Act, which is supposed to ensure earthquake safety, mandates a slew of inspections that lengthen construction time and run up costs, but which don't necessarily ensure structures any safer than buildings constructed under the less bureaucratic commercial building code. Also, a state handbook outlines 63 steps, interactions with four state entities, and 82 documents required in the course of school construction.

The state Office of Public School Construction (OPSC) web site says that five state entities play major roles in approving and funding school construction, and that seven other state agencies that operate 40 different programs may also become involved. Union wage requirements are also a problem.

Like all public construction, school facilities are governed by the Davis-Bacon Act, which mandates a so-called prevailing wage for workers. The prevailing wage is always interpreted as the union wage, which means the advantage of lower-cost non-union labor is eliminated. The result, says Dan Weintraub of the Sacramento Bee, is that government-mandated prevailing wage "prevents bidders from offering their lowest possible price." It is estimated that prevailing-wage provisions increase construction costs by 10 to 25 percent.

The OPSC says that increased enrollment and the state's class-size-reduction program require the increase in school construction. While true, it should be pointed out that studies of California's class-size-reduction program have shown that smaller classes have had little impact on student achievement. Yet, taxpayers are asked to pay for new school facilities necessitated by a program that is failing to produce.

Despite all the waste and inefficiency of the school construction process there may still be defensible reasons to support increased funding for school facilities. However, it will take much more open debate over the school construction process, and reform of that process, to determine how much additional funding is truly needed.

copyright 2004 Pacific Research Institute



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