NEW TRANSPARENCY TOOL FOR PARENTS
(April 2005) The Murphy Commission, a Policy Foundation project, recommended increased transparency in 1998 after concluding a multi-year study of Arkansas’ K-12 public school system. Transparency describes the process of making information about government available to citizens in easily accessible formats. One panel recommendation meant to advance transparency proposed a financial analysis model that reported expenditures.1 Transparency leads to accountability, i.e., rewards and penalties based on school performance.
A new online site developed with funding from a broad coalition, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, provides Arkansas parents with yet another tool for gathering information on the performance of schools and districts. The site (www.schoolmatters.com), a service of Standard & Poors, provides information on reading and mathematics proficiency, student-teacher ratios, enrollment, and spending per student. It features charts that allow parents to compare school performance to state averages, and multi-year district trends.
The www.schoolmatters.com site continues the progress Arkansas has made toward full transparency in recent years. Critics demand the K-12 system receive more tax dollars without accountability. The vast majority of Arkansas parents have ignored these demands, insisting their representatives enact transparency.
Critics Oppose Accountability, Officials Enact It
Critics attacked the Commission’s transparency recommendation, arguing the information would be used to undermine public education.2 In reality, the purpose is to provide parents with more information so they can make informed decisions about their children’s education. Key officials, including legislators, ignored these critics and created transparency. They established online school report cards, and required each district to publish a performance report in a local newspaper that included metrics such as “(t)he graduation rate, grade inflation rate, drop-out rate (grades 9-12), and college remediation rates.” Arkansans for Education Reform, a grass-roots movement of parents and business leaders, supported the latter measure. Another example of transparency was a site (http://www.schoolresults.org/) unveiled last year.3
Parents In ‘Fiscally Distressed’ Districts
The Department of Education recently designated 11 K-12 districts as “fiscally distressed.” The Commission identified nine as candidates for administrative restructuring in 1998. These are the Altheimer, Dierks, Dollarway, Eudora, Flippin, Lead Hill, Midland, Waldo and Western Yell County school districts.
Parents in these nine districts may wish to know how their students compared to others in Arkansas. The new site makes this information available to them.
A disclaimer on the site notes:
“Test results show a snapshot of student performance. It is important to remember that student performance reflects the collective effort of schools and their communities. Research has shown that the education levels and contributions of parents are critical factors that impact a child’s academic performance. To help all students reach their full potential, it is necessary that students, teachers, families, and communities collectively engage in efforts to improve student performance.”4
Students in four districts scored lower than the Arkansas average in Reading and Mathematics proficiency in 2004. These are the Altheimer, Dollarway, Waldo and Western Yell County districts. Operating expenditures (tax dollars spent per student) exceed the state average in all four. Trend analysis, however, reveals students in all four districts made modest improvements on state Benchmark exams between 2002 and 2004.
Reading proficiency data was unavailable for Eudora and Lead Hill. Eudora students scored less than the state average in Mathematics proficiency. Lead Hill students scored above the average. Midland students scored higher than the state average in Reading and lower than the average in Mathematics proficiency.
Dierks and Flippin students scored higher than the state average in Reading and Mathematics proficiency. Operating expenditures per student are less than the state average in both districts.
Transparency critics have an easy answer for every problem facing Arkansas’ K-12 system: raise taxes, and spend more tax dollars on public education. A poor state like Arkansas, with limited resources, cannot afford this bad advice.
The new site increases transparency for parents, a worthy policy goal.
Officials can use the data to make informed decisions on topics ranging
from administrative restructuring to classroom instruction. It is a welcome
1 APF research study, “Streamlining and Cost-Saving Opportunities in Arkansas’ K-12 Public Education System” (September 1998), Recommendation 3.6.
2 Critics ignored the Murphy Commission’s broad range of sources, including Arkansas Department of Education employees, educational co-operative directors, superintendents of school districts and other administrators, school board members, teachers and parents of students. Important data sources included a study of the Department of Education conducted by the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR).
3 APF research memo (2004). “Arkansas K-12 Education: New Site Increases Transparency.”
4 The site also notes, “Student achievement is driven in part by how
money is spent, not just how much is spent.” The Policy Foundation
advanced this point in its three 1998 research studies on public education.