Rhode Island loves data nerds

It's Christmas in Rhode Island: the state Department of Education has released a comprehensive new set of financial data for district and charter schools throughout the state. This is a welcome development given the Ocean State's $331M budget deficit and the need to do more with less. District budget directors and community members alike now have a powerful tool for finding inefficiencies and pushing for spending that is better-aligned with their most important priorities for K-12 education.

Other states (like New Jersey) have mandated that districts publish financial reports using a Uniform Chart of Accounts, a set of guidelines for classifying school and central office expenses and revenues. However, Rhode Island is the first state I know of that provides the reports and raw data in a format that empowers users to perform their own analysis easily ? in this case, using Microsoft Excel. RI's effort also includes the state's rapidly growing charter sector and benchmarks every district against charters and the rest of the state.

The level of detail is exceptional, with reports on spending in functional areas (face-to-face instruction, classroom materials, professional development), subject areas, even how much a district spends on retirees. (One spends 10% of their budget on retired personnel!) The reports could go further, of course. As far as I can tell, the data are not presented at the school level, which would be helpful for comparing spending within districts. Ensuring districts apply the rules faithfully and don't game ambiguities in the system will also be a concern. However, in talking with Cynthia Brown, the project's director, I got the clear impression that the state wants to make the reports as transparent and useful to the citizens of Rhode Island as possible.

That's admirable, and the Department of Education deserves a round of applause for a timely and powerful move toward greater financial accountability.

Update: RIDE's Cynthia Brown wrote in to correct me on an important point: their database does break out school-level data. Here's how to find it: "The location segment contains a 5 digit code, the first 2 digits of which represent the school level (elementary, middle, or high) with the last 3 digits representing the specific school within the district.? We also capture the information for district pre-schools, alternative schools, and specific school placements for students receiving services outside of the district." Even better!

? Chris Tessone

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