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10 Tips for Being a School Choice Watchdog

National School Choice Week is Jan. 27 – Feb. 2. This past Wednesday, Watchdog Wire hosted a webinar with Bruno Behrend, a senior fellow for education policy at The Heartland Institute. Behrend answered questions about education in America, school choice, vouchers and what citizen watchdog journalists can do.

That’s right! You can be a citizen journalist and cover school choice events in your area. They are happening all across the country, and you can get involved by visiting the National School Choice Week (NSCW) web site. We encourage you to cover the events happening in your area.

Tip #1:

Take some time to uncover that “complex.” File public records requests (Freedom of Information Act requests) through your school district for budget information. Gather a few CPAs who are willing to volunteer a couple of hours to look through an assigned portion of the budget. Find the waste, and you may even uncover more. And of course, if you do, we welcome your stories at watchdogwire.com.

Tip #2:

Find out whether that is true in your area. Compare the amount spent per student in the public schools to the amount spent per student at a charter school. But remember, the school district has its facilities paid for through bonds while the charter school is paying for the facilities themselves, in most cases. Be sure to financially account for this difference when you are comparing — you want to compare apples to apples.

Tip #3:

Is that the case in your school district? If it is, compare it to your local charter schools, and you can demonstrate the clear difference in efficiency.

Tip #4:

Do you have vouchers in your state? If so, look at the trend lines since they were implemented. Have the public schools started to perform better? Have the budgets of the public schools slowed their growth? It would be an interesting comparison, and you can report on it by gathering the information through public records requests.

Tip #5:

Usually, schools that have collective bargaining spend more on their staff and teachers than schools that do not. Compare union-organized schools with collective bargaining to schools that do not have collective bargaining. This information can also be obtained through a public records request, and you can ask your school system for the average salary per teacher and per administrator. Just be sure that you also ask for the average full cost of the teacher or administrator: salary, plus any benefits received.

Tip #6:

Attend a school board meeting, or go interview a member of your school board. Using a smartphone, you can use an app such as HD Recorder to record the audio so that you can type up your story later without taking furious notes during the meeting. Or, request copies of the audio or video of prior school board meetings, as these are available through public records requests. Listen to the entire interview or meeting and ask yourself, is there any waste, fraud or abuse happening here? If you think there is, start gathering the information to put the story together, and follow the rabbit hole where it leads.

Tip #7:

All of this information is public record — you merely need to request it. Check and see who own what company or firm, what administrator or school board member they have a relationship with that is either personal or professional, and make sure everything is above board. Frequently, as Behrend explained to us on Wednesday, incestual relationships abound.

Tip #8:

What kind of control do parents in your state have, both legally and per the school district’s policies? What can you do if your school system is failing in your state? “Parent triggers” allow parent control to be triggered under certain circumstances, based on the specifics of the legislation, when a school district is failing.

Tip #9:

Be the subject of your own story! Using NSCW’s placard, you can take a picture of yourself holding the sign and then post it to your social media. This is another way to let people know that you are paying attention to School Choice Week.

Tip #10:

You should be able to find their phone numbers on your school district’s web site. If you cannot locate their contact information, remember that their information is public because they are elected officials. You can obtain their address to send a letter from your local board of elections or secretary of state, frequently online. Or, look up their home telephone number using a source such as whitepages.com or that old book with tiny font called a phone book.

 

And of course, we hope that you will send your pictures, stories and photos to watchdogwire.com. Join us on Wed., Jan. 30 for another tweetup where we will be discussing these issues in more depth on twitter. Stay tuned to watchdogwire.com for more information and to sign up to be a citizen watchdog journalist. We look forward to seeing your National School Choice Week coverage.

Sara Marie Brenner

Sara Marie Brenner is the Strategic Outreach Manager with The Franklin Center where she manages the Watchdog Wire team, social media strategy and engagement, and other outreach. She is the Creator/Editor of TheBrennerBrief.com and a contributor for Watchdog Wire, Human Events, Yahoo and The Brenner Brief. She may be emailed at saramarie.brenner@franklincenterhq.org.

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Categories: Education, Government Transparency, Quick Tips
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