Wisconsin School Spending Transparency Bill Provides a Model for Other States | Citizens Against Government Waste

Wisconsin School Spending Transparency Bill Provides a Model for Other States

The WasteWatcher

In a win for advocates of school spending transparency, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers (D) signed SB 373 into law on Friday, November 5, 2021.  The new law requires school districts to “make detailed information related to the receipt and expenditure data” of all school spending available and easily accessible on the district’s website and creates a commission to determine the most effective method for the collection and display of spending information.

Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty’s Director of Education Policy Libby Sobic celebrated the public’s newfound ability “to determine just how taxpayer funds are allocated and whether it is benefiting our students and teachers.”  The legislation ensures that detailed spending information will be easily accessible to the public and guarantees that parents will be notified of all spending changes.  The new law states that each year school districts must “conduct a public information campaign on the availability of financial information on the department’s site.”

This major reform comes on the heels of concerns about how school districts across the nation have spent federal recovery funds from the COVID-19 pandemic.  Current reporting requirements for federal funds have led to vague responses, allowing waste to flourish in the shadows.  Reason Foundation Education Policy Analyst Jude Schwalbach wrote that “vague descriptions” of how emergency relief funds were used not only “fail to comply with federal law,” but “also make it difficult for policymakers to understand how funds are used.”  Without complete information, neither parents nor legislators can ascertain what steps to take in the future.

The lack of transparency in school spending extends far beyond the use of federal relief funds.  A March 1, 2018, Kentucky Bluegrass Institute report stated that for years the organization has responded to questions about how much schools spend with a single answer: “We really don’t know.”  They noted that the “lack of accurate and transparent data makes it hard to evaluate educator claims about being under-funded.”  Likewise, a March 11, 2020, Louisiana’s Pelican Institute for Public Policy report highlighted the lack of transparency in that state’s public schools.  With a “cloak of secrecy surrounding the system,” the only thing clear about spending was that “the dollars are not following the students into the classroom.”  Instead of spending money on students, school districts across the nation have poured funds into extravagant waterparks, unnecessary technology, and massive superintendent salaries.

To cut down on waste, fraud, and abuse in school districts, more states should adopt school spending reporting requirements like those included in Wisconsin’s SB 373.  These and other reforms will shine a light on how schools spend money.  When taxpayers have easier access to more detailed information on school spending without relying on investigative reporting and public records requests, opportunities to hide wasteful and corrupt spending will decrease and efficiency and effectiveness will increase.  And students will get a better education, which is what their parents deserve, and local school districts should want.

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