Make School Budgets Detailed and Transparent

In the newest issue of Education Week, J.H. Snider argues that with today’s technological advances there is really no excuse for schools not disclosing much more detailed budget information.

Historically, school districts have published and posted on their Web sites budget data in summary views only. Summary views answer questions such as how much a district spent on student transportation in general, but not on a particular bus route; how much it spent on energy in general, not at a particular school; and how much it spent on total employee benefits, not a particular benefit such as sick leave.

There are three primary reasons citizens should support breaking school officials’ monopoly on budget-summary views.

First, officials have a conflict of interest in providing summary views. Rational administrators can be expected to use summary views for purposes of public relations rather than democratic accountability. As a matter of common sense, they will hide controversial information within large, uncontroversial categories. Their summary views will answer questions that they, not citizens, would most like to have asked. The budget presentation will be like a politician’s press conference where the reporters can ask only preapproved questions.

Second, school officials cannot think of every useful budget summary, any more than Google can anticipate how hundreds of millions of Americans will search its data or a library can project how patrons will use its collection.

Third, unless citizens are given access to data down to the checkbook level, they cannot effectively integrate budget figures across different governments (for example, to compare two similar school districts two thousand miles apart) or with nonbudget data (to find out a school contractor’s lobbying expenditures, for instance).

Right now many districts do not provide any school-level budget numbers. One reform that can help aid more transparent budgets is the move by many school districts to student-based budgeting, where money follows the child into individual schools and the budgets are reported based on actual school expenditures rather than district averages that mask differences in spending between individual schools.

Snider also points out that the technology is readily available to report education spending details:

Specifically, federal, state, and local education checkbooks should all be made available online in a single, standardized format using so-called semantic Web technologies, which make it possible to more easily search and use Web content. XBRL an international data-tagging language adopted by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for the financial reporting of public companies, could be the basis for such a standard. RDFA, a semantic Web technology endorsed by the World Wide Web Consortium, would allow decentralized structured data integration, just as Google compiles data from millions of Web sites into a single search engine.

Not all raw data collected by school systems should be made public. Privacy concerns dictate that health claims, home addresses, and Social Security numbers not be disclosed. But privacy concerns are now being used to withhold far too much school budget data essential for democratic accountability.

At a minimum, no school system should be able to prevent access to computerized budget databases because checkbook records contain a mix of private and public data. Federal guidelines should require that all human-resource, student-attendance, and budget-software programs purchased by local school districts be able to automatically redact the private data and post the public online.

Lisa Snell is the director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.