Cato Institute gives F- to state public education spending transparency
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Published: 27-Aug-2013

Advocates of public education in the Sooner State point to incremental signs of progress. But when it comes to disclosing the full spending picture, one national group says Oklahoma’s transparency has a long ways to go. 

The Oklahoma Department of Education has garnered a grade of “F-“ in a new Cato Institute report that aims to assess “the completeness, timeliness, and accessibility of K-12 education spending data made available to the public on each state’s department of education website.” 

Oklahoma scored a 38, one of nine states with a F- (below 50). Four states scored lower than Oklahoma: Nevada, Iowa, Hawaii and Alaska. 

The Cato assessment -- called “Cracking the Books: How well do state education departments report public school spending?” -- was based on a 100 point scale, with varying maximum scores assigned as follows: 

· Per Pupil Expenditures, 45 points

· Total Expenditure Data, 30 points

· Average Salary Data, 10 points

· Public Accessibility, 15 points

Total maximum possible: 100 points 

Cato assessed all 50 states in the four categories. Scores for the first three areas “are divided equally between statewide financial data and district-level financial data.”

New Mexico, with a 93 (or a grade of A) was the highest-ranking state in the national assessment, and in the region.

Other neighboring states, and their respective grades, were Texas (84.5, B); Kansas (77, C), Louisiana (77, C); Colorado (68, D+); Arkansas (63, D) and Missouri (49.5, F-). 

The Cato report notes “one significant limitation” in methodology (http://www.cato.org/cracking-books/grading-criteria) in the assessment, as follows:

“While the terms ‘total expenditures’ and ‘total per pupil expenditures’ should include all categories of expenditures associated with operating the public school system — including instruction, administration, transportation, food service, building construction, debt service, and so on — this report does not penalize state departments of education that do not include the full cost of employee pensions in their calculation of total expenditures.

“This decision stems from the way that the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) accounts for public school employee pensions. The NCES allows states to define public school employee pension costs as merely what school districts contribute annually toward the state employee pension fund (or its equivalent) rather than the present value of future pension payments for which public school systems are liable.”

The Cato analysis provides enough data that independent analysts could, if they so desired, recalculate the weighting of the four factors listed above. 

Explaining the report’s limitations, the Cato report points to a Heritage Foundation analysis that estimates the full cost of public school employee pensions is three to four times greater than NCES estimates.

Contact Patrick B. McGuigan at Patrick@capitolbeatok.com and follow us on Twitter: @capitolbeatok.

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