Cracking the Books at the SDEs

In recent weeks, we’ve seen public polls from PDK and others, where those surveyed claim that the public schools are vastly underfunded.  At the same time, though, we see that per-pupil expenditures — particularly at our largest urban districts — have never been higher than they are today.  Somewhere, there has to be a disconnect between the actual costs of public education and the perception of how our financial commitment is falling short.

Earlier this month, the Cato Institute released an interesting report that looks at how well our nation’s state department of education share information on how taxpayer dollars are actually being spent on the public schools.  The study — Cracking the Books: How Well Do State Departments of Education Report Public School Spending — casts a valuable spotlight on government transparency when it comes to school spending.
And how do our states stack up?  Only two states — New Mexico and South Dakota — score in the A range, garnering an A and an A-minus respectively.
Two states earn Bs (Washington and Texas) while three earn B-minues (Nebraska, Kentucky, and California).
What’s far more disturbing, though, is that 18 states earn an F or an F-minus for their transparency when it comes to school budgets.
The Fs?  Indiana, Delaware, North Carolina, Wyoming, Georgia, Minnesota, Mississippi, South Carolina, and West Virginia all earn the F.
But the bottom of the list is dominated by states that scored those strong F-minuses.  The “honor” roll includes: Missouri, Connecticut, Oregon, Ohio, Oklahoma, Nevada, Iowa, Hawaii, and Alaska.
While some may take issue with the report or the conclusions it reaches, it offers an important snapshot in the discussion of school spending and budgeting.  As Cato states:

Half of all states report a “per pupil expenditures” figure that leaves out major cost items such as capital expenditures, thereby significantly understating what is actually spent. Alaska does not even report per pupil expenditure figures at all.

Eight states fail to provide any data on capital expenditures on their education department websites.  Ten states lack any data on average employee salaries and 41 states fail to provide any data on average employee benefits.

When the state education departments provide incomplete or misleading data, they deprive taxpayers of the ability to make informed decisions about public school funding.  At a time when state and local budgets are severely strained, it is crucial that spending decisions reflect sound and informed judgment.
Cato raises some interesting issues for all to consider.  As states start moving to a common chart of accounts system, some of these areas may be addressed.  But until we have full transparency and complete accounting for all the dollars spent, it is hard for anyone — even the most knowledgeable person — to assess if our schools are properly funded or not.

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