School Building Costs: Public vs. Private

Published January 1, 2002

While the cost per student station in Florida is $12,862, school building proposals to relieve overcrowding in the Los Angeles Unified School District have a pricetag three times higher–$42,000 to $47,000 per pupil–according to Morris Newman in an August 16 Los Angeles Times article.

At that price, LAUSD could easily spend over $2.5 billion to build more than 80 new schools to provide seats for 63,000 students over the next six years.

Is LAUSD likely to complete such a mammoth construction project in a timely manner? Shirley Svorny, an economics professor at California State University, Northridge, doesn’t think so, based on the district’s track record of bad decisions and slow action.

Instead of building new schools, Svorny suggests issuing vouchers to parents of children in overcrowded schools, so they would send their children to private schools and solve the overcrowding problem.

“[W]e need to move beyond the existing public school bureaucracy for talent and facilities,” she says.

Svorny points out that a significant portion of the $7,000 or so per year the district currently spends for each student could be shifted to a voucher. That amount could be supplemented by another $2,000 per student per year towards capital expenses, such as the cost of renting, remodeling, or otherwise increasing capacity. The cost of converting buildings into private schools is about $15,000 per pupil, according to LA architect Joseph Pica.

“The private sector has already shown that building new schools is not the best or only solution to finding space,” Svorny wrote in the Los Angeles Daily News. “Private schools have been innovative in converting residential, retail, and office properties to classrooms and administrative offices, adding space at half the cost spent by the public sector.”

“Awash in Classrooms”

Another advantage of using the private sector to relieve overcrowding is that the current space shortage may be temporary. After all, notes Svorny, it wasn’t long ago that LAUSD “was awash in unused classrooms.” District-owned campuses sat idle for years after the baby boom. By contrast, space rented by private schools would be reabsorbed in other productive uses should the need for classrooms decline.

And, of course, there’s the ever-present spur of parental oversight, which “provides incentives for schools to use voucher funds to offer clean, comfortable and safe school environments.”