It’s been a couple months now since the Democrats running Colorado’s House Education Committee went out of their way to double-super kill school spending transparency. But no matter how uncomfortable it may make some politicians feel, the issue simply is not going to go away.
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).
Unfortunately, I can’t suggest you read the whole Education Week column, because I haven’t read it all myself. I haven’t saved enough pennies to sign up as an online subscriber, and my mom says it’s either that or save my money for the new Lego police station. You understand … right?