Agencies’ education costs need auditing

Over the past dozen years, Texas state agencies have spent $23.8 million on the further education and training of their employees through conferences, special programs and college tuition reimbursement, the Texas Tribune reported this week.

On its face, the idea of assisting employees to become better educated is a good investment, something many successful private companies have understood for a long time now.

But at a cost of $23.8 million of taxpayer money over a 12-year period, one might think the expenditure should at least call for some reflection.

The issue really came to light when the Tribune reported that the troubled Texas Health and Human Services Department had pre-paid the tuition for a top aide’s Master of Business Administration degree program in the whopping amount of $97,020. Since the report, the employee has resigned and agreed to repay the cost.

After examining data from the Texas comptroller’s office, the Tribune looked at all state agencies’ expenditures for educational purposes, finding that the Texas Department of Transportation had spent the most on staffer education — $10.6 million since 2002 — and the Department of Aging and Disability Services disbursed $3.4 million during the same period.

Aside from the dollars spent, another striking thing uncovered by the publication is that much of the educational funds used by TxDOT went to private institutions, including $2.7 million to St. Edward’s University in Austin.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with spending money at a private university, assuming that similar classes and programs are not offered by community colleges and state institutions of higher learning in the area.

It appears there is no uniform set of standards among state agencies for offering tuition reimbursement and other educational opportunities. Some agencies don’t provide those perks at all.

This is an administrative and fiscal concern that the Legislature must address.

It calls for a thorough investigation, a consistent process among all agencies that want to make available such opportunities and a strict, measurable system of accountability.