In our opinion: Transparency is good

Published: Friday, Feb. 1 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

The proposal sets forth a simple requirement to share a rather large cache of financial data collected by schools on the state's Utah Public Finance website, which is designed to facilitate transparency in government.

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In the digital world there are increasingly fewer technical barriers to the dissemination of public information, and therefore there are fewer excuses for government to withhold data citizens may find valuable. As such, we look favorably on a bill before the Legislature that would have school districts put online the details of their ongoing finances.

A bill offered by Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley, would require that the data school districts and charter schools are obliged to present to the State Office of Education also be made available online.

The proposal sets forth a simple requirement to share a rather large cache of financial data collected by schools on the state's Utah Public Finance website, which is designed to facilitate transparency in government.

In early discussions on Senate Bill 128, concerns have been raised that the data in question is broad and not compiled in a specific context and as a result, may lead to confusion about school spending priorities and investment strategies.

It is a valid point, but not reason to oppose the bill. Any repository where data is dumped may contain unconnected numbers without any particular context. But in this case, the information in question is presumably valuable as it is currently constructed to those who oversee education functions, so it stands to follow it will be valuable to the people from whom school funds ultimately come.

Greater detail would be appreciated, and may be forthcoming as districts might decide to compile and release the data in different formats to give it context meaningful to average citizens. As it stands, the numbers will offer at least a snapshot of the average district budget and how much is spent in raw numbers on textbooks, teachers and various school programs.

In recent years, the Legislature's commitment to openness on public records has been something of a roller-coaster ride, but there is an increasing momentum in the right direction. The nonprofit group Sunshine Review recently issued its annual report card grading all 50 states on how well they provide information to the public. Utah ranked seventh in the nation overall, while Utah school districts, measured against other state education systems, ranked second.

It is a distinction the state should be proud to own. School districts, and all government entities, should strongly favor maximum transparency. It builds more understanding and leads to a better-informed electorate. To worry that some people may misread or misinterpret the data is to underestimate the savvy of interested citizens and to overstate the threat of it being purposely twisted by demagogues for political gain. No one should expect the data to offer absolute answers, but it certainly can ensure more educated questions.

As the measure progresses on Capitol Hill, lawmakers are advised to consider that the majority of Utahns are clearly on board with the concept that when it comes to the functions of government, there is no such thing as too much information.

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