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MY TURN: Restoring some faith in K-12 public education won’t be easy

by CHRIS CARGILL/Guest Opinion
| November 12, 2022 1:00 AM

The results from Tuesday’s election continue to ripple through state legislatures and school boards across the nation. Exit polling shows that public education was one of the top issues on the minds of voters — especially parents.

The question is — what happens now that the election is over? Following years of COVID shutdowns and heartburn over school curriculum, will it be possible to restore some confidence and trust in K-12 schools?

I would submit the answer is … maybe. It will not be easy, but educators and lawmakers can take immediate steps to start moving things in the right direction.

The first step must be more options for parents. There are various ways to accomplish this. Arizona has become the first state to allow for complete and universal Education Savings Accounts (ESA’s). These tools allow parents to access at least some of the dollars set aside by the state to fund their child’s education.

Parents can keep their child in the public school they support, or if that option isn’t working well, they can use the money to go elsewhere. The money would follow the student, not just be applied to the system. This is an especially important tool for special needs students.

In Idaho, Governor Brad Little recently signed the Empowering Parents program, which provides eligible families with funds that they can use toward education expenses to help students recover from learning loss caused during the pandemic. Tens of thousands of parents have already signed up.

For the sake of students, policymakers should be looking at additional ways to provide more educational freedom. It’s no longer just an idea — it’s a necessity.

The second step to help restore some faith in public schools is just as important — transparency.

Have you ever tried to read a school district budget? Often, they are a maze of numbers and legal jargon — if you can even find them. Depending on the district, they can be hidden on websites, and only accessible if you know where to look.

When you finally do track down the document, it can be very difficult to read and understand — sometimes hundreds of pages long with dozens of accounts.

Unless they have an accounting degree, the average parent or taxpayer cannot take the time to read through and understand all the details. School leaders know this. So, too, do legislators.

So why not try to fix it?

One policy idea is a Public School Transparency Act, which would require all public school districts, both on the first page of their budget and also on the front page of the district’s main website, to clearly report six simple things: (1) the total amount of dollars being spent, (2) how much is being spent per student, per year, (3) the percentage of dollars getting to the classroom, (4) the average administrator salary and benefits, (5) the average teacher salary and benefits, and (6) the ratio of administrators to teachers to students.

Very little extra work would be needed to provide this data and make it assessable on paper and online. Most districts already have it hidden somewhere in their budget documents. They know where to look, whereas parents and taxpayers can get lost.

Parents and taxpayer may see this data and conclude their school districts need more resources. Others may see it and believe that not enough is being done to spend money in the classroom. Regardless, the community will have a broader sense of the results being achieved, and what — if any — changes need to be made.

In many areas, voters used their ballots to plead for change, especially in K-12 public schools. Elected officials need to follow through.

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Chris Cargill is the president and CEO of Mountain States Policy Center, an independent, free market think tank based in Idaho. Online at mountainstatespolicy.org.

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