Still for School Spending Transparency, Denver Post's Tune Changes a Bit

The Denver Post followed up its Sunday story on local school district expenditures with an editorial today that says “Shine the light on school spending”:

A bill now advancing in the General Assembly would require school districts to make budget information available online, including discretionary spending. House Bill 1036 argues that districts ought to take advantage of technology to allow for greater transparency.

We question whether a mandate is needed, but agree with the intent and urge districts to use the technology on their own.

As my Education Policy Center friend Ben DeGrow noted in his recent report “What Should School District Financial Transparency Look Like?” (PDF), HB 1036 is a small step forward but a relatively weak mandate.

By comparison, last year’s SB 57 that made it through one house of the Colorado legislature (before being double super-killed) was a much stronger mandate. In February 2009 the Denver Post published an eerily similar editorial supporting SB 57, titled “Shine a light on school budgets”:

Today, the bill is expected to be debated on the Senate floor. Lawmakers should take the opportunity to put some of the teeth back into the transparency law, remembering that open government is better government.

Left to their own devices, many school districts won’t publish the information. We understand many of their concerns, especially when it comes to the cost of putting all of that information onto the Internet….

But taxpayers deserve to know how their money is being spent, and the Internet allows for that transparency.

Last year the Post urged strong teeth be put into the school transparency bill, even as lobbyist factions at the Capitol worked behind the scenes to stop it. This year the Post is cautious about supporting the weaker mandate backed almost unanimously. What’s up? The more dire budget situation, perhaps? I’m not sure, but thought it made for an interesting contrast.

In any case, it’s good to see Denver’s only major daily newspaper taking a stand for local governments showing taxpaying citizens how their money is being spent. With the news that tomorrow the U.S. Department of Education will unveil winners of Race to the Top federal grant dollars, Colorado officials can only hope there are many more millions of publicly-accountable dollars available.

Whether it’s money that comes from property taxes or vehicle fees or state funds or Race to the Top money, the message is the same: If you can’t defend it, don’t spend it!