The chorus of twitter about the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complex that Los Angeles will open next month is not surprising, given its shocking price tag of $578 million. The building will accommodate 4,200 K-12 students, and includes features such as a marble memorial and luxury swimming pool. Critics say it is among the most egregious of “Taj Mahal” school construction projects on record, although Los Angeles, New York, New Brunswick and other cities have opened other mega-million-dollar schools in recent years.

Supporters are quick to note that Los Angeles funded the school out of proceeds from a $20 billion voter-approved bond, not from the education budget.  So what, precisely, do these generous California citizens get in return for their $20 billion of increased indebtedness?

The perpetuation of an outdated system that is failing too many students.

The traditional bricks and mortar school design originated in the late 1800s, when larger enrollments forced the one-room schoolhouse to expand. As industrial America embraced the efficiencies of the factory system, public schools followed suit, bringing standardization and batch processing to the classroom.

The problem now is that this centuries-old system, designed for instructing students in groups of 30 with a standardized teacher in the front of the class, is showing signs of its age. Among the most cited indicators of distress is the national dropout rate, which stands at around 30%. Other signs of distress include widespread budget shortfalls and teacher shortages, test scores that are uncompetitive internationally, and lack of access to advanced courses.

And yet Los Angeles has just dedicated $578 million more to cementing the old system in bricks.

Consider an alternative. A few years ago, Rick Ogston, the executive director of the Carpe Diem Collegiate High School in Yuma, AZ, used $2.7 million for a new building for his 273 students, grades 6-12.  (That equates to under $10,000 of building cost per enrollment, versus the RFK Community School’s $138,000 building cost per enrollment. Even if one adjusts for cost of living, the cost differential is irreconcilable.) Because of its unique instructional model, Carpe Diem only needs five classrooms in its building, whereas a traditional school with that enrollment size would need more than ten.

Even more promising than Carpe Diem’s cost savings is its innovative model—one that has the potential to transform, rather than perpetuate, the ailing school system. Carpe Diem uses computer software to provide individual, customized lesson pathways for each of its students. The children advance at their own pace, and teachers work as coaches to supplement and apply what the students learn online. Already Carpe Diem is getting national attention for its commendable results.

Voters, let’s stop building more of the same. Save that bond money for projects that stand a chance of transforming the system through disruption, as described in Disrupting Class. Despite its shiny newness, that $578 million building is already out of date.


  • Heather Staker
    Heather Staker

    Heather Staker is an adjunct fellow at the Christensen Institute, specializing in K–12 student-centered teaching and blended learning. She is the co-author of "Blended" and "The Blended Workbook." She is the founder and president of Ready to Blend, and has authored six BloomBoard micro-credentials for the “Foundations of Blended Learning” educator micro-endorsement.