Open School District Checkbooks


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.



If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.


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  • It's kind of odd Pogie when I made almost the same argument about a month ago you were stubbornly opposed to it. What changed?

  • I think my disagreement was in the context of the levy, when you were calling for an impossible amount of information to be disseminated. I was, however, too broad in my criticism then.

    I do agree that transparency is always better. I think I was caught up in what I thought was an unfair critique on your part.

    I'll give you this one. 🙂

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Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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