Pennsylvania earned a “C+” for providing citizens information on how public schools spend money, according to a recent report from the Cato Institute titled “Cracking the Books”. While the report ranks Pennsylvania 9th among states, our mediocre grade and comparison to “A” states shows opportunity for improvement.
We should strive to provide the most comprehensive and user-friendly tool for parents, teachers, researchers, and taxpayers to know how public schools are spending money.
Legislation (HB 1411) pending in the General Assembly would do just that. In 2011, state lawmakers passed, and Gov. Corbett signed, legislation which put state spending—including budgets, payments to vendors, and employees’ salaries— online. That website, PennWATCH, has already proven to be a useful tool for tracking state spending. HB 1411 would mirror this success, creating SchoolWATCH to put public school spending data (including charter schools) into a searchable website.
There are ways to improve SchoolWATCH from its present form. Because Commonwealth Foundation has run OpenPAGov.org—a transparency database letting users find school district spending, performance, tax, and salary data acquired from the Department of Education—for the past four years, we have some suggestions. Some of these have already been proposed as amendments to HB 1411.
SchoolWATCH should include school performance data already being collected by the state Department of Education. Being able to link spending with performance is an important tool for parents and researchers. Such information will allow education advocates to identify successful schools and develop best practices for what works and is cost-effective.
SchoolWATCH should include collective bargaining agreements. Putting these union contracts online provides a resource for teachers, parents, advocates, and members of the media—particularly during contract disputes and strike situations.
SchoolWATCH should include individual salary information for all employees. Salary information is public record and is already collected (and provided on request) by the state Department of Education. Moreover, salary information for state workers is currently available on PennWATCH. It would be inconsistent to treat public school employees different than state workers.
Commonwealth Foundation already provides individual school employee salary information on OpenPAGov.org—in fact, that is our most popular search. Newspapers have also posted this information from state data. If SchoolWATCH is to be the most comprehensive tool for school financial information, it should include data already being provided on external databases like ours.
In the past, transparency has been a bi-partisan issue. Lawmakers should be able to work together once again to enhance our ability to get good information from state government.