Investing in public education is important. To make those sure that investment is sound, it’s time for the Legislature to step and require efficiency audits of local school districts to make sure dollars are spent tactically, not frivolously.
Fortunately, lawmakers have included a provision in House Bill 3 (the school finance bill) to require school districts to submit to a third-party efficiency audit before asking voters to approve tax hikes. An ISD wouldn’t have to adopt the audit’s recommendations, but they would have to hold a hearing on the findings and make the document public.
It’s a start.
As the bill’s author, Texas Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, contends, “This is important for transparency purposes. If you’re going to go to your voters for some reasons, you should prove that you’ve been operating as efficiently as possible.”
Too often, school bond proposals and tax ratification elections are oversimplified into “Vote yes for our kids,” with the insinuation that if you don’t plan to vote yes, you don’t support children, or at least public education.
This is a disservice. Supporting public education means asking tough questions—including how we’re spending our money and whether we can stretch those dollars further.
How is an efficiency audit different from the yearly audits conducted by most school districts? Regular audits merely check the books; they compare expenditures to the adopted budget. They don’t tell us whether an expenditure should have been made, or if it achieved its end goal.
Efficiency audits, on the other hand, look at the relationship between the inputs—the tax dollars that school districts spend—and the outcomes, like student performance.
Professional firms would be tasked with investigating the operations of a school district, and would provide the district with a set of unique recommendations on how public resources can be best utilized. The goal is to provide the most efficient public education services possible.
And by the way, that’s exactly what the Texas Constitution calls for—the Legislature must make “suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.” (Italics ours.)
Efficiency audits are carried out by impartial third parties; this is important. Currently, school district audits are conducted by the Texas Education Agency. The TEA has a small audit team that cannot serve the auditing needs of all the school districts of Texas in a timely manner.
Additionally, previous TEA audits have proven ineffective in curbing wasteful spending and operations—following their audits, districts often continue operating in inefficient and even irresponsible ways.
A recent study by The Texas Monitor found that governmental entities that conducted efficiency audits saved millions of dollars. While school districts would have to budget for them, the returns — in the form of cost savings and a more effective education system — would make the audits well worth the costs.
“An audit of the state government in Kansas identified as much as $434 million a year in cost savings,” the Monitor reported. “Wyoming, Rhode Island and the city of Seattle found similar savings with their audits. The Detroit Public School System found annual savings of $53 million in its audit.”
Some in the education community depict efficiency audits as an attempt to cut funding for public education. This couldn’t be further from the truth, these audits are about working together to deliver an effective education to every Texas public school student.
Not only would efficiency audits help eliminate waste and identify best practices; they would also help build trust and cooperation between districts and the taxpayers and families they serve.
Ellen Troxclair is a senior fellow with the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Think Local Liberty project and a former member of the Austin City Council. Follow Ellen on Twitter at @EllenforAustin