Saving Public Education

Recently John Ramsey, chief executive officer of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI), put a question to his members. Ramsey wrote, “The 2010 elections yielded much more than a change in party control for half of the U.S. Congress…. The changes in state houses and local boards of education were far more sweeping … and in addition to sweeping budget reforms … we are seeing a new movement that involves public sector labor. (i.e. the recent Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Florida, Rhode Island, etc. legislative initiatives to overhaul teacher pay and collective bargaining.) My question: What impact, if any, will a changing labor climate (in some cases extreme) have on the educational facilities market? Please share your thoughts.

This was my response.

John – You raise a very interesting and important question about the future of educational facilities. Unfortunately, the same forces that are creating doubt about the future of facilities are creating doubt about the very future and structure of public education.

Public education in the United States is under attack, and not just from one side or another; it’s from politicians of all stripes who see education as a pot of money that they do not (yet) control.

These politicians have set themselves up as experts on subjects about which they know little or nothing — how to teach, curriculum, teacher competency, tenure and much more. No Child Left Behind and the Race to the Top are two well-known, wrong-headed approaches to education, but because they are supported by politicians and their publicity outlets, and they have put a pot of gold at the end, school superintendents, teachers, board members and others who should know better are bowing down and changing programs, accepting that they must “make do” with less, firing professionals, ending programs and creating schools that are less and less able to meet the educational challenges of the 21st Century.

What does this have to do with facilities and CEFPI? I think it is a concern on two fronts.

On the facilities front, not only are less being built (my most recent construction report indicates that fewer than 330 new schools were built in 2010 compared to more than 960 in 2002) but, as money is withheld, and teachers are fired, fewer spaces of all kinds will be needed. Who needs an office for a counselor when there is no money to hire one? Who needs an architect when we can’t afford to build?

Consider the facility implications.
  • Smaller classes and opportunities for cooperative learning result in better education. Facilities are needed to make that happen.
  • Art, drama and music, physical education, languages and technical skills are essential, if schools are truly to educate students. Facilities are needed to make that happen.
  • Providing early childhood education increases learning, and early intervention saves money by limiting later problems. Facilities are needed to make that happen.
  • Making technology available to all students on a continuing basis is the only way we can prepare them for life in the 21st century. Facilities are needed to make that happen.

But the drive to take away money from education, along with the emphasis on teaching to tests in order to prove to politicians that a school is doing well, is leading to the elimination of programs that really benefit children. And, at the same time, it lessens the need for improved facilities. 

CEFPI is one of the major education associations that should be advocating for the public schools. You have raised an important question and I salute you for that. But based on literature and news from the other major associations, they appear to have buried their heads in the sand. They are more concerned about methodology, class organization and test scores than they are about the overall future of public education. Some even find pleasure in the problems facing their colleagues in education. Thus, we have superintendents and school board members supporting attacks on teachers rather than understanding that while teachers are under attack now, they will be next. (They already are.)

 Children are still popular with the great majority of the American people. (Even politicians express concern for them.) Given the facts, most people support full funding for schools. Can CEFPI, representing people who work with all education stakeholders — teachers, students, administrators, board members and the public-at-large — be the organization that brings its organizational neighbors together to support public education, to protect it against political attempts to take over and to fight for the funding public schools need to provide a proper education for all of our nation’s children?

If we don’t, there may not be an educational facilities market in the future.

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facility consulting firm based in Mamaroneck N.Y. He was named CEFPI's 2008 "Planner of the Year." He can be reached at [email protected]

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."