At the Thomas J. Pappas School, needy students can get free clothes, shoes, food, and dental work, all without leaving campus.

What they can't get is much of an education.

For more than a decade, Maricopa County's Pappas School has nurtured a national reputation as a place that delivers life's essentials to homeless children who might otherwise never get them.

The three Pappas campuses — elementary schools in Phoenix and Tempe, plus a middle school in Phoenix — have served not just thousands of free breakfasts and lunches, but also sent home bags of canned goods, television sets, and bicycles to needy families. Kids without shoes get a pair; kids with lice get treatment. There's not only a social worker right on campus, but a staff generous with smiles and hugs.

Everyone from Morley Safer to Family Circle to USA Today has swooned over the magic. After educating homeless kids here for almost two decades, the Pappas School has become an institution in a town too young to have many of them.

The Pappas campus in Phoenix is where Valley residents send toys (at Christmas) and turkeys (at Thanksgiving). It's where George W. Bush just happened to stop on his way through town in 1999. It's, officially, a Phoenix "Point of Pride" — and the recipient of nearly $1 million in outright donations last year alone.

This year, though, the Pappas Schools have been in the news for a far different reason. Maricopa County Schools Superintendent Sandra Dowling, who runs the schools, became the subject of a blistering financial review by the county supervisors, then the focus of a criminal investigation from the sheriff. (The investigation is still open; no charges have been filed.)

In May, alarmed by the district's sorry financial state, the supervisors voted unanimously to close down the schools. Dowling responded by taking them to court.

For Pappas, it's been months of pile-on media coverage. But the focus has been almost entirely on politics. When the TV cameras stop to train their lenses on the school itself, it's typically to ponder the donations that Pappas doles out, not what goes on in the classroom.

No one talks about the learning.

Sandra Dowling won an important victory last week: a court ruling that will almost certainly keep the Pappas School alive for at least one more year, despite shaky finances.

It's worth asking the question of whether that's a good thing.

Unfortunately for Dowling, the research is in. And it's far more critical than 60 Minutes ever was — and, arguably, far more important than the mismanagement that the auditor found so interesting.

A total of 11,560 homeless kids attended school in Maricopa County last year. Of those, 1,400 were enrolled at the Pappas Schools — the place specifically designated for them, the place that's supposed to meet all their needs.

But there's one big difference between the homeless kids who attend school at Pappas and the other homeless kids in Maricopa County.

Academically, the kids at Pappas do a whole lot worse.

There are two prominent photographs hanging in the lobby of the Pappas Schools' flagship campus in Phoenix.

One, behind a glass cabinet with other memorabilia from celebrities who've visited, is of Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey did a segment on Pappas in the mid-'90s, a fact that's still spoken about reverently in the school's hallways.

The second is of Dr. Sandra E. Dowling, the tiny woman with a bright red Marine crop who serves as the schools' public face and most emphatic booster. Something of a publicity hound, Dowling attracts nasty gossip the way that Angelina Jolie picks up orphans.

There's the story of how she muscled her way onto Oprah. The whispers, now verified in that audit, of how she got her son hired to do the district's landscaping. There's the sniping about the second office she opened for herself over at Pappas Middle School, because having one at the county building a mile away just wasn't close enough.

In the Pappas lobby, however, Dowling is in her element. In a frame, nestled in a bower of plastic ivy, she looks positively beatific.

The school itself is a sunny, friendly place. Perhaps because its staff hosts endless tours for the philanthropic, would-be philanthropic, and merely curious, everyone seems to know the routine and executes it with practiced pathos.

The tours tend to focus almost exclusively on the school's social service mission:

Here's where they give away clothes to the children. The poor dears, some of them have never had a new pair of shoes before.

There's the toy closet. At the monthly birthday parties, everyone celebrating their annual milestone gets a gift. Everyone! And you should see their eyes when they get to come inside the toy room — kids who have nothing, and all these toys to choose from.