When education reformers have talked over the last two decades about holding schools accountable, they have meant holding them responsible for their academic output. Ever so slowly, though, the accountability movement is adding a new — and important — dimension. Now, there is growing talk across partisan lines about holding schools accountable for their financial work.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has embraced this idea. So has the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress, which recently released a report estimating that America’s schools lose up to $175 billion a year through inefficient spending.

Houston businessman Charles Miller recently convened a summit in Austin, Texas, to rev up this conversation. Two former U.S. education secretaries, academic experts, school principals, a union leader and management consultants talked about how schools across the country can use data to work more efficiently. That includes how much time teachers spend on a subject.

My favorite part was hearing Mike Casserly, head of the Council of the Great City Schools, break down data from big districts. He showed how they could save on food services, transportation costs and teacher expenses.

Data can be like a flashlight for superintendents. For example, Casserly says that if districts hold their teachers’ absenteeism rates to the national median, they could spend money more efficiently. In other words, they could pay teachers who know their classrooms instead of substitutes who get paid to run in place with a teacher’s students.

Casserly explained how some districts already have used his organization’s database to rethink their strategies. Seattle’s district realized it could save money if it bought more goods electronically.

Like the academic aspect of this movement, the financial focus is not aimed at punishing schools. Rather, the goal is to help campuses become more productive so funds can be freed up to help students.

This latest incarnation of the accountability movement is emerging for several reasons. For starters, the lean economic times are driving districts to rethink how they spend money. Nothing like a recession to focus everyone on the bottom line.

Schools also have so much more data to crunch. Bush Institute fellow James Guthrie says there is no way you could have this conversation not so many years ago. The data wasn’t around or accessible.

Now, schools have their own databases or outside organizations like the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation are helping them access relevant data.

But two questions face this next leg of the accountability movement. First, how can Washington, states and schools take it up to the next level?

Miller has one constructive idea. He wants Texas legislators to create an independent center to evaluate and rank schools based upon their financial performance. Texans could start seeing how well districts manage their money. Miller thinks that if a big state like Texas makes a play on this front, other states could follow.

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