House Republican Transparency Law Not Fully Implemented

House Republicans addressed transparency for K-12 school funding in 2006, long before “transparency” became the battle cry of Iowa taxpayers. The problem is that four years later the law isn’t fully implemented.

In 2006, Republican chairperson of the House Education Committee, Rep. Jodi Tymeson, introduced House Study Bill 522, a bill referred to as the Taxpayers Right to Know Act. This bill became a House Education Committee bill, House File 2346 and then became law in the Vilsack/Republican negotiated education compromise bill, Senate File 2272

Today the House Republican’s Taxpayer Right to Know Act is Iowa Code section 279.63.

The law requires school districts to post information on their web site about all property tax levies, state and federal funds, as well as trend data about student enrollment, teachers and administrators and their salaries.

Since health insurance benefits are collectively bargained almost on par with teacher salaries, the law requires districts to provide basic information about cost and coverage. This type of insurance information about county employees has available since 2006. For example, Polk County pays 100 percent single person coverage which costs the county $410 per month. Family coverage costs $1,088 each month with Polk county picking up 88 percent of that cost and the employee paying 12 percent. See:

The clear intent behind the 2006 House Republican initiative was to provide Iowans easy access to key financial information about their school district. The law invited parents, community leaders, employers and employees to join the discussion as informed citizens.

Four years later with a budget crisis in full swing, the law should provide the foundation for informed community conversation and local decision making. Unfortunately, implementation of the law has fallen short.

The central location for each district’s financial report is on the Iowa Department of Education’s web site with the data managed by the Grant Wood AEA. A drop down menu allows for selection of any district. See:

While most features of the law are included, these data elements are not reported:

  • Sales tax proceeds such as the former School Infrastructure Local Option (SILO) which is now known as the statewide sales tax for school infrastructure. This revenue will generate a minimum of $658 and a maximum of $1,100 per student in FY11;
  • The percentage and dollar increase under teacher and administrator salary and benefits settlement agreements;
  • Teacher and administrator health insurance and other alternative health insurance benefit information;
  • The tracking of the number of retirements, resignations and new hires.
  • Student Enrollment. The report doesn’t let citizens see the actual number of students in the district. The report shows the “budget enrollment” which is the actual number of students multiplied by a weighted value of each student. A student taking a community college course, for example, a higher weighted value.
  • Special education enrollment. The report provides the total weighted value of all special education students in the district but not the actual enrollment.
  • A select review of 50 district shows that the 2008 and 2009 data for enrollment, teachers, administrators and salaries is identical.

Despite the fact that school districts are required by to provide a link to this information on their websites, a review of twenty district web sites shows that few offered the appropriate link.

The Des Moines school district, for example, offers a host of financial information but the link to this particular financial report is to the 2007 data. Likewise other districts may provide detailed budget documents but do not link to this transparent information.

Last month the CATO Institute published “They Spend WHAT? The Real Cost of Public Schools.” Their review of district budgets and state records for the nation’s five largest school districts and the District of Columbia shows that per pupil spending is 44 percent higher than officially reported.

Phoenix metro area districts report spending $9,300 dollars per student but the real average per-pupil spending, according to CATO, is 27% higher at $11,800. New York metro area districts report spending $18,700 per student but the real per pupil spending is 44% higher at $26,700. Chicago metro area districts report spending $12,000 but actually spend $14,800 per student.

Here is a short video on the CATO study:

Americans spend $500 billion on K-12 school with 27 cents of every dollar collected at the state or local level consumed by the government run K-12 education system. Nationwide state funding makes up 47 percent of K-12 revenue while local sources comprise 44 percent. The demanding federal government contributes just 9 percent.

Step one for saving money without sacrificing quality is to know how much you spend. Only then can citizens determine if their students are getting a high-quality education. Ironically, state legislatures rely on state level information but according to the CATO study the best place to look for timely information on total spending is at the district level in individual district budget documents. Unfortunately, those documents are not always published on-line and demand an in-person trip to the school district administrative office to obtain.

The CATO study includes model transparency legislation. It reads much like the law House Republicans passed in 2006. Updates may be needed to the Iowa law and more careful implementation is in order.

Iowans support their local school district in good times and bad. If we are going to collectively solve budget shortfalls then everyone needs to be on the same page with the same information. Parents, community leaders and taxpayers alike are eager to help local school boards make quality decisions about the future of their kids.

The full CATO report can be found at this site: