Is a Maryland county’s plan to privatize school buildings a glimpse of a frightening future?

“Why is Prince George’s County barreling forward with a risky and expensive plan to build new public schools that is lacking in detail and mimics the Trump administration’s failed infrastructure proposals?”

That’s what two residents of Maryland’s Prince George’s County asked in a recent commentary.

It’s a great question.

Another way to put it: Why is Prince George’s County rushing to become the first jurisdiction in the country to use a public-private partnership (i.e., private financing) to build public schools?

During a pandemic that’s probably going to change public education forever.

When interest rates on municipal bonds (the typical way of financing new schools) are at historic lows.

After a number of Canadian provinces have learned the dangers of public-private partnerships the hard way.

And with the Purple Line, a half-finished light rail public-private partnership cutting across the county, having just imploded because the private investors wanted more money.

The answer? Because of something much deeper and longer term than what’s going on in one Maryland county. Something K. Sabeel Rahman, the president of the think tank Demos, recently called “the systematic undermining of public infrastructure.

The fact that the country has an estimated annual school construction gap of at least $38 billion.

The fact that so many of our roads, bridges, water systems, and other infrastructure are aging beyond repair.

The fact that only two thirds of Americans have broadband access.

The fact that federal spending on public health, education, and other nondefense discretionary programs is at a historic low.

The fact that during a pandemic, state and local governments are being forced to make deep cuts to public services, the very services so many of us rely on day to day.

As Rahman points out, this systematic undermining is racialized. “Too often, he writes, “the decision to underinvest in public infrastructure has stemmed from a desire to restrict access to those goods and services for people of color, in an attempt to preserve the benefits of public infrastructure for wealthier and whiter communities.”

That’s what’s happening in Maryland. Prince George’s public schools are underfunded by the state by more than $500 million every year. Baltimore City’s public schools, which are also majority Black, are underfunded by $342 million.

A public-private partnership—despite the slick branding from the P3 industry—is yet another underinvestment.

Every public dollar that goes into the pockets of private investors is one less dollar to invest in our communities. One less dollar to fix existing schools, replace water pipes, rebuild roads, deliver fast internet, and whatever else we need.

And a lot of dollars are potentially leaving Prince George’s County if they go through with the deal, which comes with an estimated $1.2 billion price tag.

Who knows what the final cost will be? When the Canadian province of Alberta used private financing to build schools back in 2007, costs eventually tripled from the original estimate.

A public-private partnership is also a way to sidestep accountability for a tax system that increasingly favors the rich and well-connected.

The 2017 Trump $1.9 trillion tax cuts mostly helped corporations and the wealthiest Americans. Maryland has one of the most unfair tax systems in the nation. Incomes are more unequal in Maryland after state and local taxes are collected than before.

No doubt about it. “Austerity and privatization have driven the defunding of public infrastructure,” Rahman writes. What is happening in Prince George’s County is a continuation of that.

We have to stay vigilant. With nearly $90 billion spent every year on school construction, there’s a lot of money to be made for multinational investors, big banks, and private equity firms.

A lot of money that would be better off put to public use rather than private gain. Especially when the needs are so great.

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