Capital Op-Ed

Trumbauer, Chris, Eliminating a token tax cut could give us enough teachers to keep up with enrollments, June 12, 2018.

Snider Comment

“One of the County Council’s greatest responsibilities is to review, amend and pass each year’s county budget.”

There is no question that maintaining current class sizes is one of the most popular policies a politician can endorse, which is why year-in and year-out it is routinely touted as a reason to increase school budgets. But it should be remembered that money is fungible and that one of the classic budget tricks is, after a respectable period of time, for politicians to take money raised for a popular purpose and transfer it to a less popular purpose.

While it is not feasible to have a lock box for money raised in the name of class size, it is at least possible to have transparency with regard to class size. Such transparency has been vehemently opposed by school officials. There are a variety of reasons for such opposition. One is that increasing class size is unpopular with parents as a whole but public officials view the ability to increase class size as a vital slush fund needed to appease various constituencies and fund their own pet initiatives.

In theory, class size data is public information. But in practice, the school system would charge a citizen tens or even hundreds of thousands to dollars to make this information publicly available at a verifiable, classroom level. Even requesting it for a single school would probably cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, as well as take months of negotiation as the parties discuss options to reduce the cost. [Note: these estimates are based on the responses my wife got to a Public Information Act request for class size data.] Perhaps there is no better example than class size data of the difference between nominally and meaningfully public data.

There are many nuances to a well-designed class size disclosure data policy. But the key point to note is that such data is highly politicized and publicly released in aggregate form at a time and format in the budget cycle designed to maximize a particular policy outcome–justifying more money for the school budget rather than to help weigh competing budget priorities.

I believe that the councilman genuinely cares about both class size as well as open government. Thus, I would encourage him, in keeping with such a stated goal, to encourage the school system to publicly disclose on its website in an Excel spreadsheet or other machine-readable format the class sizes in Anne Arundel County on both a disaggregated (by class) and aggregated (for the whole county) basis; to provide this information on a historical as well as current basis just like other budget information is provided; and to provide it early in the budget process rather than at the very end when, as a practical matter, it can only be used for the purpose the Councilman has used it.

A basic principle of open government is that both the public and insiders should have the same access to public information. A corollary is that when such equivalent access doesn’t exist, there exists a strong incentive for public corruption. In this case, the insiders are county councilors, school board members, and school staff.

In few areas of AACPS school governance is the principle of equivalent data access for insiders and outsiders more routinely violated than class size data. This violation should be viewed as intolerable. Anyone who wants to tackle corruption in the current budget process–as well as the long-term problem of excessively large class sizes–should begin with this part of the budget process.