TRANSPARENCY & TAXES
Five years ago the Policy Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit economic research organization, proposed standardized accounting for Arkansas’ K-12 public school system.1 The proposal followed interviews with school board members who told our researchers: “Because of our accounting system, our district is data rich, but information poor … We cannot manage successfully what we cannot measure.” We noted that accounting can provide important data on spending in areas such as administration, classroom instruction and maintenance. Earlier this year the state Department of Education launched a standardized system prototype, which can be viewed at this link:
The department’s prototype is an example of transparency: the process of making information about government bureaucracies available to citizens in a format that is easily accessible. Transparent government bureaucracies use technology to provide information to citizens. The goal is to serve citizens and the public interest, not protect bureaucracies. Exemptions are similar to those in the state Freedom of Information Act.
Arkansas public school report cards2 are another example. The state Department of Education provides information online (www.as-is.org/reportcard/) for every K-12 district and school in the following categories: standardized test results (average percentile); state benchmark exams (percent at or above proficient level); end-of-course exams; college admissions test (ACT); attendance rate; dropout rate; graduation rate; college remediation rate; Oct. 1 enrollment; school discipline policies; expulsions; weapon incidents; staff assaults; student assaults; percent of students eligible for free and reduced-cost meals; district total mills voted; expenditure per student; and average teacher salary. The report cards serve parents, students and other citizens by providing information that allows them to make informed decisions and measure performance.
Transparency can be used to identify inefficiency and waste within government bureaucracies. It is an inefficient use of tax dollars for many Arkansas service cooperatives to spend less than 50 percent of their resources on classroom instruction. It is inefficient to increase subsidies to K-12 administrators if the districts they head consistently produce inferior results on standardized tests and other statistical measures. Information from transparent institutions can help citizens--and the legislators that serve them--identify inefficiencies in the K-12 system. Transparency can also help these groups as they attempt to respond to the Lake View school finance case.
Arkansas has taken tentative steps toward transparency but more information should be shared with citizens. These include data on K-12 athletic expenditures; spending data that employs economic benchmarks; and an online system that assigns an annual A-to-F grade to every district and school in the state.
Opponents of accountability resist transparency but its increased use in Arkansas is inevitable for several reasons. First, online technology makes it possible for a wider dissemination of information to the public. Its use will grow in the future making it possible for more citizens to make informed decisions about government performance. Technology also makes it feasible for dedicated civil servants within a non-performing government bureaucracy to share information with citizens. Second, the federal education system is moving toward transparency at a faster rate than bureaucracies in states like Arkansas. This is a two-edged sword for state officials. They sought a greater federal role (and funding) but are faced with higher transparency standards from federal institutions that are defining the debate by providing more information to the public. One example is the National Center for Education Statistics (http://nces.ed.gov/), which provides citizens with a greater quantity and quality of information than the state Department of Education. Sections of the No Child Left Behind Act are another example.
Finally, non-government organizations are using technology to present and analyze information for citizens. These include non-profit groups like the Policy Foundation and news media with the independence to challenge school bureaucracies performing at sub-standard levels. One potential application is an A-to-F grade assigned to each Arkansas’ K-12 district and school based on information currently available to citizens.
Many citizens have used information to make decisions about Arkansas’ K-12 system. They are seeking more transparency before taxes are raised in response to the Lake View case.
1 “Streamlining and
Cost-Saving Opportunities In Arkansas’ K-12 Public Education System,”
Arkansas Policy Foundation (1998)