Often times when analyzing legislation, bills can appear to be sound, logical, and even reasonable upon first glance. They may touch on issues and values that you hold in high regard, and they may appear to positively effect an issue in a way that sounds good to the ear. But, after analyzing many bills over many years, one starts to learn that these types of bills are the ones that you have to hold to the highest level of scrutiny – if only to ensure that your own biases are not improperly clouding your judgement.
One value that Utah Political Capitol holds sacred is government transparency: government documents, records, transactions, and interactions should be available for the public and media to scrutinize and comment on, so that we the people can have a firm grasp of how our government works for (or against) us.
Another value we hold strong is that one of the tenants of a strong democracy is a strong public education system. A well educated populous directly relates to a more vibrant and prosperous economy and society for all – investment in public education is the strongest investment we can make in our future.
First, the back story. Within the majority of state government, various departments must report their spending into several coded categories, such as office supplies, new equipment, cost of repairs, etc. Education reporting, however, is a little bit different. In Utah’s public education system, similar codes are used within each school district, however these codes are only used within each respective school district and have no particular continuity relative to each other or to the state’s standard system. Adding to the confusion, each school district generates two different reports: an internal report which is delivered to the state school board, and a second report which is sent on to the state. Because each school district in Utah uses different definitions of expenditures, transparency becomes an issue as the public’s ability to access and search raw data (data explaining how and where our tax money is being spent) becomes a daunting task.
Thatcher’s bill, if it were to pass, would require that school districts and charter schools classify transactions the same way that all other government agencies report their transactions.
“Look at every state agency Utah has,” says Thatcher, “they all report using the same accounting practices – the standard chart of accounts, whatever expenditure you use, there’s a code you give it…by publicly disclosing the expenditures, we will actually know where the money is going.”
Thatcher feels that, by breaking down expenditures into these terms, we would be better able to understand how effective funding has been for one school district over another, and cross reference this information to ultimately replicate the programs that work and cut the ones that don’t. Thatcher explains that “my hope is that if we can get the information about how schools are using [tax dollars], this will help us appropriate money to the right places in education.” Without question, that’s a laudable goal.
On the surface, it is true that simplification and unification of school codes would make it easier for the public to understand how tax dollars are being spent and supposedly, that knowledge would assist the legislature in better allocating dollars to education programs that are working, thereby improving overall education. However, we feel that Thatcher is over-simplifying the process, to the ultimate detriment of public education dollars.
Sources closely tied to education funding and spending in Utah admit that the process is a complex one, but also make it clear that comparing schools to retail agencies or transportation is like comparing apples to oranges. According to those sources, the current system for deciding where school money is allocated has evolved from three primary principles:
1) Individual reporting standards are a direct result of the citizens’ (and legislature’s) desire to favor local control of school districts rather than state.
2) An understanding that programs are often tailored to an individual district, neighborhood, school, grade, or even classroom – and a dollar for dollar replication does not ensure success in all areas.
3) Program “success” can only be compared to the “success” of other programs, not on the amount of dollars a program spends to achieve “success.”
Ultimately, Thatchers bill would oversimplify the education budgeting process to the overall detriment of education funding, fostering an environment in which the bulky state government is attempting to legislate for every classroom. The very good-government goals Thatcher is wishing to achieve would likely move further away if this bill were to pass, if only because subtle nuance would be lost. In short, the complexity exists not to hide the truth, but to illuminate it – even if it is difficult to ultimately see. Much like the process of education itself, finding the truth is not simple, but once found, it is ultimately more useful.
Is there room for improvement? Undoubtedly. Perhaps a better approach would be to create a board to put together a list of standard budgetary practices that can be adopted by all districts, but still allow individual districts to be flexible. In the end, we applaud Senator Thatcher for pushing for greater transparency, but his bill uses a hatchet when a scalpel is more appropriate.
**This piece was co-written by Eric Ethington
To contact Sen. Thatcher, Click Here or call 801-759-4746
Impact on Average Utahn:
High Impact 5 . 4 . 3 . 2 . 1 . 0 No Impact
Necessary 5 . 4 . 3 . 2 . 1 . 0 Unnecessary
Great Bill 5 . 4 . 3 . 2 . 1 . 0 . -1 . -2 . -3 . -4 . -5 Poor Bill