At the end of the Second World War, the United States found itself a global hegemon.
Packed full of geographic advantages – beginning with possessing the world’s largest plot of arable land in the temperate zone, which delightfully overlapped the world’s largest navigable river system – helped the U.S. become an economic colossus. The Industrial Revolution took off in most of the country, and the remainder of the industrial world found itself without much in the way of either factories or navies when the dust of World War II settled.
Having just played a pivotal role in defeating global fascism, the United States then fought a 35-year Cold War of nuclear brinkmanship in order to defeat a second global totalitarian threat in the Soviet Union. As the Soviet Union dissolved, the United States found itself straddled with a huge surplus of military bases around the country.
The U.S. Air Force, for example, had bases in both Austin and San Antonio, Texas, when the Cold War ended. Given that you can, well, drive between these two cities in an hour and a half, this did not make much sense.
Congress wasn’t exactly adept at repurposing these bases to more productive uses. Pork-barrel politics and logrolling led senators and representatives to be supportive of closing someone else’s bases. The local base, well that one was vital to national security and had to remain open no matter what. While the United States could defeat horrific dictatorships, making rational use of resources seemed a bridge too far.
Enter the Defense Base Realignment and Closure Act of 1990. The law created a commission to lead a base realignment and closure (BRAC) process. Basically, the Secretary of Defense, the President and the Commission came up with a closure list, and then Congress had 45 days to reject the list, or the closures would be enacted.
Given that our Congressional Olympians have trouble tying their shoes in 45 days, this process worked swimmingly well. In Austin, the no longer needed Bergstrom Air Force Base became Bergstrom International Airport. As an airport, Bergstrom generates far more economic activity, employment and tax revenue than an unnecessary Air Force base could hope to match.
An area in which K-12 education might benefit from this example lies in school facilities.
In the short run, the combination of America’s public health goat rodeo and odd choices executed by certain major special interest groups seems likely to continue the reduction of district enrollment for fall 2021 after a rough 2020. In the longer run, there is the Baby Bust that began during the Great Recession.
Finally, for reasons not dissimilar to base closure politics, American school districts have a long history of mismanaging facilities, often building too many and (especially) systematically showing reluctance to close underutilized facilities.
A case in point: The Arizona Auditor General has reported that between fiscal years 2004 and 2017, Arizona school districts added 22.6 million square feet of building space – a 19% increase – despite a student enrollment increase of only 6% during this period. Districts built additional schools when they already had low-capacity usage rates at existing schools.
When you go on building and rarely closing facilities, you can wind up with millions of square feet of underutilized space, which is Arizona’s current situation, and it’s only likely to worsen due to the COVID-19 debacle.
It probably never made sense to have a large Air Force base in Austin and another just down the road in San Antonio either, but this is the sort of thing that happens when decisions are driven by politics.
To prevent adding to an already absurd surplus, Arizona should collect K-12 capital funding on a statewide, rather than a local basis and provide it on an equitable per-pupil basis to students. District and charter schools should be free to spend these funds in whatever fashion they feel furthers their educational mission, whether that is building a new school, patching a leaky roof, or paying their teachers.
In terms of converting something like a low-value Air Force base into a high-value international airport, that just might require some kind of base-closing commission. Local school boards seem largely unequal to the task.