The cost of education

Why school-by-school budgets matter

The Metro Ideas Project is doing the hard work of producing a first-ever analysis of the Hamilton County Department of Education budget at the school level. While the school system presents an annual budget and recently produced a citizen’s guide to its budget, MIP’s work is a first look at budget data at the individual school level. This is an important step forward in better engaging the public in budget decision-making, thereby helping the Hamilton County Board of Education and County Commission make better decisions when it comes to education spending in our community.

It is hard to get the public to understand public budgeting. As Chattanooga city finance officer, I attended every City Council meeting and was always amazed at how even the smallest changes in zoning would attract dozens of residents to come and testify. On the other hand, there was remarkably little public testimony or comment on the city budget overall. Much more public debate and discussion was focused on what I thought were less important matters than how a city government was going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

I can think of a few reasons why this might be the case.

The budgeting process at the local level tends to focus on issues that appear to have neither a personal nor direct impact on individuals. While I might be motivated to testify at a public hearing on a zoning issue related to a property next to my house, I am less interested and less willing to come to a hearing on citywide land-use issues.

Budget debates are widely viewed as being about numbers, and we know that math is, unfortunately, not most people’s favorite topic. For years, psychologists have written about the concept of “math anxiety.” A 2012 University of Chicago study found that for those who have math anxiety, mere anticipation of having to deal with a mathematical problem can cause actual physical pain. This gives a whole new meaning to the term “painful budget process.”

Public interest and debate over budget-making is driven largely by news reporting. The lack of public involvement and interest is partly influenced by the lack of strong local news coverage over the budget process. Local reporters do not always have the knowledge needed to effectively and accurately dissect local government budget issues. More often than not, local reporters will focus on those issues within a budget that are most controversial. Travel budgets, training budgets and office furniture tend to absorb a disproportionate amount of the oxygen we expend on public discussion of local government budgets.

The lack of public participation in local government budgeting is a problem because it takes the public off the field when it comes to addressing some of the most important policy questions facing our community.

The mathematical science of budgeting — getting the arithmetic to work — is really the easiest part. The hard part — and the true art of local government budgeting — is getting the policy priorities right. Budgets are less about numbers and more about policies and priorities.

We also know that when there is greater public participation, the results are better. A study that looked at the impact of citizen participation in budgeting, specifically budgeting around transportation projects, found that early and frequent efforts at citizen engagement led to budget choices more likely to achieve desired outcomes — specifically, fewer road fatalities and fewer poor quality roads.

MIP’s work on producing school-by-school budget data is an important first step in increasing public participation in school budgeting and improving outcomes.

It will lead to better data. As Justice Louis Brandeis wrote more than a century ago, sunlight is the best disinfectant. In other words, greater transparency will lead to more scrutiny of the data and thus better and more accurate information.

It will lead to more public involvement. Parents, students and community residents will be able to look at the impact budget decisions have on a school in their community and the school that they or their children attend. It will take countywide issues and localize them.

It will lead to better questions and better debate. Sen. Daniel Moynihan once famously said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” School-by-school data will undoubtedly raise more questions than it answers, but that is a good thing. Armed with the same set of facts, different people can debate policy based on information rather than speculation.

The result of that debate will lead to better policy and ultimately better schools for our children and our community.

David Eichenthal

Senior fellow

David Eichenthal is the former president of the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies. He currently serves on the board of UnifiEd and the Tennessee advisory board of the Trust for Public Land.