Charter opponents silent about traditional schools’ lack of financial transparency
By JIM WATERS
“Why don’t we have real data on charter schools?” shouted the headline atop a hit piece on these public schools of choice in The Nation a few years ago.
Funny, I’ve been asking the same question in this column for more than a decade about Kentucky’s traditional public schools.
After reviewing recent revenues and expenditures reports for several school districts, that question remains largely unanswered and will continue to present a mystery to this columnist unless the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) starts filling in a lot of boxes on spreadsheets currently marked with zeroes.
The KDE’s revenue reports regarding Floyd County Schools, for example, show the district received $69 million during the 2016-17 school year and $73 million the following year from several revenue streams and various local, state and federal pots of money.
Not a single cent made it to the local schools while all $142 million clanged into the money changers’ hands in the school district’s central office, at least according to the KDE’s “Annual Revenues and Expenditures” reports.
Of course, these traditional public schools get money because they’re open and theoretically serving our children.
Yet we don’t know how much funding each school gets nor whether the dollars correlate with the schools’ size and needs.
Is the money equally distributed among schools?
Is it allocated according to each school’s enrollment?
Do schools with higher poverty rates get the extra state and federal dollars allocated to serve children on free-and-reduced-lunch programs?
Do schools with severely disabled children get funding needed to provide adequate services and a quality education to these students?
Are districts attempting to bypass School-Based Decision Making councils’ authority over spending at individual schools by hoarding dollars in the central office?
In order to better determine how dollars are spent by schools and districts, the KDE created a Chart of Accounts designed to reveal not only check amounts but information for “memo” lines about individual expenditures in the form of coding expenses to various categories, including instruction, transportation and plant operations.
However, Pike County Schools apparently decided — at least according to the district’s recent financials – not to follow the coding scheme and ended up assigning more than $132,000 “instruction” dollars to the “Bus Garage” category.
Those dollars apparently were spent on something else entirely while the funds for the bus garage were placed in another spending category, although you can’t tell that from the data.
Such sloppiness and outright opaqueness would hardly be tolerated by opponents of charter schools.
The Nation sermonized: “To begin with, unlike public schools, which are required by law to show how they use public resources, most charters lack financial transparency.”
Of course, sermonizers should always remember that more fingers point back at him than the single finger he’s pointing at his audience.
With all this talk about how charter schools aren’t transparent and accountable – especially when it comes to financial issues — you would think taxpayers can know where every dime is going in traditional public school districts.
In fact, the Every Student Succeeds Act, signed by President Barack Obama in 2015, requires states to report school-level financial information.
Also, the Kentucky Constitution has compelled legislators to “provide for an efficient system of common schools throughout the State” since 1891.
Complying with the Constitution requires accurate and transparent information regarding resources down to the school level.
But meaningful school-level financial reporting has never really fully occurred across Kentucky.
Yet charter-school critics seem more worried about a lack of “real data” regarding schools which don’t even exist yet in Kentucky than the many traditional schools failing each day to fill in those memo lines and spreadsheets.
Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. He can be reached at email@example.com and @bipps on Twitter.
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