Give the Public Access

Posted on January 31, 2005
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I just wanted to take a moment to respond to Mr. Kiser's Arizona Daily Star article regarding the recently released Friedman Foundation and Goldwater Institute report on Arizona public education finance.  Mr. Kiser and I had a lengthy conversation about the report and about a critique of the report written by Mr. Charles Essigs of the Arizona Association of School Business Officials.  A couple very important issues that we discussed, however, were not mentioned in Mr. Kiser's article and I believe that, as a result, readers may have been mislead as to the central issue of the study.

There is a general consensus that K-12 public education finance is based on complex funding formulas that very few in any given state truly understand.  I believe, and the Goldwater Institute agreed, that this is not the ideal situation for the crafting of high quality public policy.  In fact, many legislators lament the fact that they must make public education policy in the dark and hope for the best.  Therefore, the Goldwater Institute and the Friedman Foundation undertook a six-month effort to deconstruct Arizona's funding formulas and translate them into something that every Arizonan could access, without requiring them to decode the formulas themselves.  The result is a large, comprehensive database, available at goldwaterinstitute.org, which allows users to select any of Arizona's 218 public school districts and any student's grade level to find out immediately the amount of formula funding associated with that student.  For example, a second grade student in the Tucson Unified School District receives an allocation of $4,656 in formula funding.  Creating this tool, and providing access to this data, was the primary purpose of our report.

In order to place the student formula funding in context, however, it was decided that the information would also be linked to detail about a district's overall finances, including funding districts receive that is not based on formulas.  The most appropriate source of this information, it would seem, are the District Detailed Reports that are published in the Superintendent's Annual Financial Report (SAFR).  These reports list budget, revenue, and expenses across a dozen or more categories.  Mr. Kiser and Mr. Essigs are correct in that I accepted that the superintendent's data were accurate.  In addition, I accepted that what the superintendent reported as revenue was, in fact, revenue.  If Mr. Essigs disagrees with either of these, it would be more responsible to critique the source, rather than the messenger. We worked with the best available information as reported by the superintendent's office and Arizona Department of Education itself.

Mr. Essigs contends that the state Department of Education at least has the knowledge and insight not to report those figures, due to the difficulty that the public would have in understanding them correctly.  I disagree.  Public information about publicly collected and spent money should be made available to the public in the most accurate and understandable way.  The Goldwater Institute has taken the initiative to do this on the formula funding side.  Perhaps Mr. Essigs should work with the superintendent to make sure that it gets done on the non-formula funding side.

It seems then, that Mr. Kiser's and Mr. Essig's primary concern is that the Goldwater-Friedman report, like the superintendent's report, included all monies flowing into districts, without regard to whether those monies directly benefit students. The goal of the report was not to cast judgment on which district revenues may actually benefit students, but to make it easier for policymakers, parents, and taxpayers to see how much money is spent on education so that they have ready information upon which to make such determinations.

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