It’s a fundamental principle of government transparency: When a government agency spends the public’s money, the public should know who is getting paid and how much.
That’s why it’s disturbing that the Indiana Department of Education rejected requests from the Monroe County Community School Corp. and the Bloomington Herald-Times for information about students who receive state vouchers to attend private schools.
This isn’t a clear-cut case. It pits the principles of transparency and accountability against reasonable concerns about privacy. If the state discloses information about voucher recipients, should it also reveal who receives need-based state aid for college? Should it name people who get food stamps or other public assistance?
Disclosing information about individual students also could run afoul of the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The H-T appealed the denial of its request to state Public Access Counselor Luke Britt; and Britt cited FERPA in upholding the DOE decision.
But FERPA seems to make less sense as grounds for withholding data from the MCCSC. It is entrusted, after all, with information about 10,000 students who attend local schools. If it wrongly made student data public, that would be the fault of the district, not the state.
The DOE did disclose how much state money each Monroe County voucher school received in 2011-12 and 2012-13. The newspaper also reached out to the six local private schools that accept vouchers, and five told how many voucher students they’ve enrolled.
“But it’s still troubling to think these state funds are flowing to places known only to state officials,” H-T editor Bob Zaltsberg writes. “How can school systems, like MCCSC, be sure of where the money being diverted from them is going?”
Part of the sales pitch for Indiana’s voucher program was that it would let students from low- and middle-income families escape from public schools that weren’t meeting their educational needs. Is that what’s happening? Without more disclosure, it’s hard to know.
So the Herald-Times and education reporter Mary Keck deserve credit pursuing this information. Government officials can’t be reminded too often of the preamble of the Indiana Access to Public Records Act:
A fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government is that government is the servant of the people and not their master. Accordingly, it is the public policy of the state that all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and employees.