By Peter Cunningham
July 10, 2017
Unregulated school choice won't benefit students.
Is anyone really for accountability? Everyone says they support it in principle, but in practice, it seems almost everyone in the system, from school boards and administrators to teacher unions and anti-testing zealots, finds ways to dodge it.
Lately, resistance to accountability is coming from some on the political right who, after decades arguing for school choice based on low test scores in traditional public schools, are now arguing that choice alone provides pretty much all the accountability we need.
Moreover, they add, test scores aren't a very good measure of school quality or linked to better outcomes in life.
These conservatives argue that if parents want a low-performing public school to stay open or want to use tax dollars to attend a low-performing private school, the system should, in all but the most extreme cases, let them. In a choice environment, they say, the market drives quality. After all, it's the parents' tax dollars and kids. Who are we to deny them?
That's a fair question to ask, but it raises an even more basic one: Is it even possible to have real educational standards in America? The new federal education law requires college and career-ready standards, but what does that mean in a country that lets every state set their own learning standards? A passing grade in one state could be a failing grade in another.
In practice, many students get good grades in high school but need remedial education in college. Who's responsible for that? The teacher who created the lesson plans? The principal who hired and managed the teacher? The district that chose the curriculum? The state that set the standard? Or the politician that funded – or underfunded – the school?
In fact, no one is responsible and, surprisingly, parents not only get it but seem okay with it. In a 2015 parent survey, Education Post asked parents who is most responsible for student learning and about 75 percent pointed the finger at themselves or their children. Just 20 percent think the system – states, districts, schools, teachers – is responsible.
So, why do we even need accountability? We could just hope and pray that millions of individual decisions by parents, teachers, principals and administrators will somehow yield better outcomes than a state-level accountability system that holds all schools to a common standard. That's essentially the position of some on the left ("just let teachers teach") and some on the right ("just let parents choose.")
A few things could go wrong with this approach. First, without verifiable proof of learning, taxpayers will have less confidence in the schools and will be less likely to fund them. Second, more and more parents will leave the public system for private schools or homeschooling. Over time, this will weaken the political constituency for public education.
Lastly, letting 1,000 flowers bloom means that a lot of flowers will wilt and die, and that has real consequences for children. Kids only have one chance for an education. When a charter school shuts down because of mismanagement, that's not the market working – that's the market failing at the expense of children. That school never should have opened.
The fact is, there is considerable evidence that regulated, well-managed choice drives educational quality in low-income communities. We know what works in education, and it isn't unregulated free markets.
- Don't Gamble on Vouchers - Invest in public schools – not private school voucher schemes – to improve education for all children.
The new federal education law tilts strongly toward local control. It's now up to states and districts to hold themselves accountable and to intervene in low-performing schools in any way they choose.
While some of the initial state accountability plans are promising, and the Trump administration has surprised everyone by challenging a few of them, history shows most states and districts did very little to fix struggling schools, even with federal pressure. Why would less oversight help? If anything we need more.
Some school choice advocates are countering the anti-accountability push from the right. Checker Finn of the Fordham Institute, Greg Richmond of The National Association of Charter School Authorizers and Louisiana State School Superintendent John White all insist that choice works best with real accountability.
Nevertheless, the bargain at the heart of school choice – greater autonomy in exchange for greater accountability – is increasingly at risk from both the left and the right. With little agreement on the mechanics of accountability – the standards, the tests, the performance targets and the interventions – there's not much hope for the remedies.
Test-based accountability is far from ideal, but accountability still beats no accountability. Without it, the adults in the system will survive just fine. Kids, however, won't.
Peter Cunningham is the executive director of Education Post and a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education (2009-2012).