Looney, Duff (opinion): Prioritizing transparency in the classroom

Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven, and Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk..

Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven, and Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk..

Ken Dixon, Staff reporter / Hearst Connecticut Media

As we write this, local boards of education all across Connecticut are hosting public hearings on their plans to spend tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars over the next year on a variety of K-12 public school costs. It’s a lot of money, and for the next few months TV stations and newspapers will be reporting regularly on the public debate over how just a few tenths of 1 percent change in a school budget can make the difference between student success and failure, happiness and grief, free freshman sports or fewer teachers next year. It’s that important.

Unfortunately, once this very detailed and very public budget-making process comes to an end, the fiscal curtain will be drawn closed once again, and the details of exactly how $9.3 billion in public money is spent to educate half a million Connecticut students will vanish into the ethereal mist of a dozen generic State Department of Education reporting requirements.

We’d like to change that.

Certainly, public education in Connecticut is a resounding success, with our public schools regularly ranked as among the best in the nation. And the state Department of Education does a good job handling the multiplicity of demands that legislators and the public expect of it.

However, as with any large investment of public funds, it’s fair to want to know more about how our money is being spent, and how it compares with, say, the town next door. Or a similar-sized town. Or a similar mix of students. Especially considering that about half to two-thirds of your local property tax bill goes to pay for local schools.

The problem is that we don’t have a very good handle on that critical spending detail under current state law. Schools send reports to the state that describe their spending, and it gets lumped into one of about a dozen different, generic categories: instruction, administration, central office, libraries, transportation, food, facilities, debt, operations, enterprise and fundraising. Some of that list is further broken down by books and supplies, or instructional aide salaries, etc., but we can do much better.

Senate Bill 1, “An Act Concerning Transparency in Education,” creates stronger oversight and uniformity in how the state and local school districts report the ways that they’re collecting and spending public money. Under Senate Bill 1, the 11 existing school expenditure categories will be increased in detail to 87 different, more precise budget lines.

Think of it as a “forensic analysis” for school spending. The public will be able to find answers to basic education spending questions, including: How many administrators does your school district have compared to a similar-sized town? What’s the new textbook budget? How much was spent on student social workers? Furthermore, school expenses like purchasing a new Steinway grand piano, duplicative overhead and administration, and television advertisements during a Super Bowl will receive the sunlight and public scrutiny they deserve. This type of detailed information is owed to parents, taxpayers and town officials who ultimately approve Board of Education budgets.

Beyond informing and empowering local taxpayers, Senate Bill 1 will help our state spend our money more effectively to deliver for our teachers and children. Every penny spent outside the classroom deserves the scrutiny of why that penny is not being spent inside the classroom. Once again, Connecticut spends over $9 billion every year on K-12 education. We want to ensure that funding is optimized to benefit the children in the classroom.

Adding several dozen more budget lines to state education reports shouldn’t be difficult: the schools can easily provide the information, and online reports can be tweaked to include it. It’s not a huge burden, and the cost — if anything — would be minimal. However, the benefit to local taxpayers and our students would be priceless.

State Sen. Martin M. Looney (D-New Haven) is the Senate president pro tempore of the State Senate and state Sen. Bob Duff (D-Norwalk) is the Senate majority leader.