Commentary

The Sunshine State’s School Spending Data Could Use More Sunshine

Florida earns high marks for its innovative education reforms and strong academic performance, but its level of financial transparency leaves much to be desired. In a new report from the Cato Institute on financial transparency, the Florida Department of Education earned a D for the data published on its website.

The report, “Cracking the Books: How Well Do State Education Departments Report Public School Spending?”, examines the spending data that all 50 state education departments make available to the public on their websites. The report reveals that very few state education departments provide complete and timely financial data that is understandable to the general public.

As in school, these grades are intended to be informative, not punitive. Since Florida has a record of striving to improve, here are a few ways the FLDOE could be more transparent with its data:

Financial transparency is essential for sound decision-making.

1) Report total per pupil expenditures, not just operating Half of all state education departments publish total per pupil expenditure (PPE) figures but Florida does not. At present, the FLDOE’s “Financial Profiles of Florida Districts” only includes “current expenditures per UFTE (unweighted full-time equivalent),” which excludes expenditures for capital projects and debt service. While these expenditures are reported separately, citizens looking for the total cost per pupil would have to break out a calculator.

The differences between total and operating PPE can be quite significant. According to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics (2009-10), Florida’s total PPE was $10,283 on average that year while Florida’s Financial Profiles reported that operating PPE was only $8,578.

Moreover, citizens looking for the change in PPE over time would have to gather the data from multiple reports since the FLDOE does not provide a single chart or table displaying that data. By contrast, the FLDOE does provide a table showing the change in average employee salaries over time.

2) Break down total salary data and publish average employee benefits.

Florida publishes the total salaries of all employees combined, but it would be more useful to know the total amount of salaries by function (e.g. - teachers, administrators, etc.). That would help citizens better understand and monitor how resources are being allocated. Florida publishes average salaries by function in a separate report, but does not publish average employee benefits. The FLDOE could learn from state education departments in Utah and Washington, which set the bar for publishing employee benefits.

3) Publish more timely data. Thirteen states publish up-to-date public school spending data but Florida is not one of them. As of the end of the last calendar year, the FLDOE’s most recently published spending data was for the 2010-11 school year. (At present, the FLDOE’s data includes data for 2011-12 but not 2012-13.)

4) Make Excel spreadsheets available on the FLDOE website. Data provided in Excel spreadsheets are considerably easier for citizens to analyze than data in PDF or HTML. Currently, Florida provides some data in Excel format (e.g. - average salary data), but not other spending data. In a response to media coverage of the “Cracking the Books” report, a spokesperson for the FLDOE stated the department makes Excel spreadsheets available on request and “can certainly add those to the website.” That would certainly be an improvement.

Financial transparency is essential for sound decision-making. To fully understand public school spending, citizens require complete and timely data in an easy-to-analyze format.

Awareness about public school spending has implications for the public discourse over public education. A Harvard University survey shows the public vastly underestimates how much public schools cost, which affects the public’s spending preferences. When citizens are informed about the true cost of public education, they are significantly less likely to support increasing spending.

Likewise, the widespread misperception that private schools cost more per pupil than public schools likely affects the public’s support for school choice programs. A greater awareness that school choice programs can save money would likely translate into greater public support for school choice. Indeed, Florida policymakers have wisely sought to demonstrate exactly that. The Florida Legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) estimated Florida taxpayers save $1.44 for every dollar of revenue reduced by the state’s scholarship tax credit program.

Financial transparency is important in a democracy for its own sake. But school choice advocates should be particularly concerned about ensuring the public is fully informed regarding the cost of public education.

Jason Bedrick is a policy analyst with the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom. He is the author of “Cracking the Books: How Well Do State Education Departments Report Public School Spending?”