Thursday, May 1, 2014

Schools vs Highways, Mr. Rawlings. You Must Choose, But Choose Wisely

The two biggest issues in Dallas at the mo' seem to be the public school system (DISD vs Home Rule) and highways (345 and the Trinity Toll Road).  They may seem disconnected, but they aren't.  Our ineffectual and exorbitant transportation spending on the derelict and dysfunctional infrastructure of the past has assimilated our school system into competing forms of dereliction and dysfunction.

Dare I use visuals?  We once built gorgeous schools as emblems of our prioritization of education and its role in creating a civilized society:

Oh, sorry.  That's not up to date.

Occasionally the boarded doors aren't so new either:

Today, school design and construction has devolved to the point of simply gussying up warehouses to store children for 8 hours a day.

Trust me.  I understand that highways and schools come from different pools of money.  That's just bureaucracy and politics.  Before that money is divided into various pools, it starts as taxpayer money.  So it does come from one pool that we as political body can determine where it should go.  The question is what are our priorities?

Don't trust me?  See for yourself.  It seems pretty obvious:

A few billion here, a few billion there.

We're gold plating highways that only serve to push debt onto our future generations while we limit their opportunities at a better life.  TxDOT is $35 billion in debt and deferred maintenance.  Guess who will be paying that off?  It's the children who can't afford a pencil, let alone a calculator to count up where all their hard work will be paying off.  Public schools ought to empower rather than being the farm system for the prison system (costs upon costs), as I believe Michael Sorrel, president of Paul Quinn College called it.

The problem is, with schools as with many things, we get hung up on costs, rather than returns.  Yet, we look at highways as investments when it's the worst investment you could possibly make.  Don't believe me?  See the blog by Civil Engineering professor, David Levinson, citing various studies showing the return on investment of new highway expenditures is approaching zero.


The reason is that every highway only serves to further disconnect and disperse.  It's highly inefficient and downright pernicious in cities, particularly when you think about where else that money could go, as real investments.

Returns on investment in public education are virtually impossible to calculate, but also understood to be so exponential that everyone from Ataturk to Thomas Jefferson realized it might as well be free.  Rather than trying to calculate it to pay it forward, it's paid backwards.  In other words, students go to good schools, get a good education, go off to become productive members of society.  Through their production, they then contribute back via taxes which then fund the education of future generations.  That's how investment works.

It's one or the other, Mr. Mayor.  What are your priorities?  What are ours?  You must choose, but choose wisely.