Utah's education system gets ‘D’ in financial transparency

800px-School_bus_invasionAre Utah’s public education administrators properly committed to openness and transparency regarding their stewardship over public schools and the tax dollars that pay for them? A recent analysis from the Cato Institute suggests the answer is no.

The analysis graded state education department websites for the financial transparency they provide. Utah’s State Office of Education (USOE) received a score of 65/100 – good for a “D” grade and coming in at 23rd out of 50 states. Two states got a grade in the “A” range (New Mexico got an “A” and South Dakota an “A-”), and 19 states got an “F” or a “F-” grade.

Utah’s score was driven primarily by the incompleteness of the “per pupil expenditure” (PPE) figures reported by the USOE. In its grading criteria, Cato states that PPE represents “the ‘price’ of a year’s worth of public schooling” and is “the fairest and most meaningful way to compare spending levels among states and districts of various sizes, and to measure trends in spending over time.” This makes PPE “the most intelligible measure by which the public can evaluate school system spending and efficiency,” making its accuracy especially important for financial transparency in the education system.

The analysis reports that the PPE figures reported by USOE include only operating costs and leave out expenses such as spending on new school construction, even though such expenses are paid for by taxpayers. Including these additional expenses to give an accurate measure of total PPE would have raised USOE’s public education financial transparency grade by 20 points, bringing it up from a “D” to a “B.”

USOE also lost points for not reporting pension costs, and for providing incomplete reporting on the costs of public education employees. Full marks on these two measures would have brought USOE’s grade up into the “A” range.

Of course, financial transparency on the State Office of Education website is only one aspect of openness and transparency in Utah’s government-run public education system. But since we live in a digital age when most information is made available online, online financial transparency is an important measure of public education officials’ commitment to openness and transparency. Hopefully, Utah’s education leaders will see this report as an opportunity to further open up public education and increase Utahns’ ability to access financial information regarding the schools that are responsible for educating their children, and are being paid for by their tax dollars.