Independence Institute Report Helps Build K-12 Financial Transparency Momentum

Not long ago my Education Policy Center friends released a report analyzing how well Colorado’s 195 local education agencies (i.e., school districts and BOCES) are complying with the 2010 Public School Financial Transparency Act. As you might imagine, this kind of work presented the challenge of capturing a perfect static picture in a dynamic online world.

Not surprisingly, a few small provisions to the report have been posted. One case was an error. A couple of others posted the missing financial documents online at the close of the 11th hour. Those details have been ironed out, but the big picture findings remain unchanged:

  1. While there are some glaring exceptions, too many districts didn’t get off to a good start in fulfilling the law’s requirements of online financial transparency; but
  2. Raising awareness of the issue through the Independence Institute report is helping to accelerate the trend of K-12 agencies in compliance.

Let me elaborate on point #2 a bit. The idea behind the paper was not so much to punish less-than-compliant school districts with a “gotcha,” as it was to encourage more to get it right. And since my friends released the paper, they have seen a few districts reach out to ask for guidance, or to indicate they were going to improve: Branson, Stratton and Kit Carson come to mind. I’m sure the media attention didn’t hurt.

One final thought to ponder: Even if all 195 K-12 agencies in Colorado were perfectly compliant with the state’s transparency law, it wouldn’t be time to rest on our laurels and say that everything is good. The report points out a couple ambiguities and loopholes that are of concern and could be fixed immediately (e.g., excluding “wire transfers” from expenditure reporting because they are not “check registers” or “purchase card statements”). Next, for further upgrades, look at the guidelines of the 2010 brief Education Policy Center report, What Should School District Financial Transparency Look Like? Not to mention what the next generation of technology might make possible.

For now though, at least, Colorado is one of the leaders nationally in improving the practice of financial transparency from school districts. Citizens have more tools than ever before to help ensure they can track local fiscal activity in public education, especially the use of scarce tax dollars, but we still have a ways to go. Think about what a nearly-perfect online snapshot can do.