J.H. Snider offers an excellent idea in the most recent issue of Education Week (registration required)—that school districts be required to post their full budget information online for public view, rather than the rather useless summaries that most districts post now.
It’s a great argument. While school districts are required by law to provide budget information to the public, layers of bureaucracy often make the search for information cumbersome and time-consuming. Public debates about education are often ill-informed because no one has easy access to information that would help the public offer a more informed, more critical look at expenditures.
Snider points out the danger of letting school districts selectively post information online:
[O]fficials 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.
Rather than summary information, districts should be required to post education checkbooks-with detailed information about each expenditure. There’s no reason that the public should not be able to research the cost of every trip to an educational conference, every book order, and every band uniform.
Reasonable safeguards can certainly be put in place to protect private data such as Social Security numbers, and as Snider argues, Texas school districts have already managed to put their information online without compromising privacy.
Most of the information revealed by full disclosure of school expenditures is likely to be quite boring, and all but the most dogged researchers would probably spend little time looking. Given technology that makes it feasible and the public interest in sunshine, though, there’s little excuse for any government agency—least of all schools—to be anything less than as open as possible.