In many Eastern religions, practitioners use mantras to calm and center themselves while meditating. If the school choice movement needs a mantra right now, it just might be:
Regulating a market is not the same as regulating a monopoly.
I say this because of the huge outcry around Betsy DeVos’s putative beliefs on how to bring accountability to charter schools and schools that participate in voucher programs. Differing conceptions of accountability have become equated with being “for” or “against” the idea in toto. But which is more strict? Requiring that schools be evaluated on an A–F scale and automatically kicked out of a charter program of they fail? Or establishing a mayorally-appointed commission to decide what schools should and shouldn’t stay open? I actually don’t know.
I do know that as increasing numbers of our schools move to a more market-like arrangement, we need to rethink what we mean by accountability and regulation. I say “market-like” just to reinforce that even the most generous voucher programs or the charter programs with the lightest-regulatory touch are not in any true sense a “market.” There are regulations around who can participate and who cannot; there are rules that fix prices; and government picks up the tab.
But given this quasi-market arrangement (a term popularized by Blairites across the pond), we must change our expectations of schools that receive public dollars. Because we’re looking to manage functions differently, we need different tools in our toolbox. Here are just a few examples:
- Academic accountability. In a school system with little to no parental choice, creating standardized, state-level accountability and teacher evaluation systems makes intuitive sense. We require families to send their children to school, so we should do something to ensure that the school is of sufficient quality. But when we have parents actively choosing, accountability needs to take a different form. We shouldn’t cram the square pegs of unique private and charter schools into the round holes of current accountability systems. Schools have vastly different curricula and methods (compare Great Hearts’ classical learning approach to Academie Lafayette’s French immersion to Carpe Diem’s technology-blended classrooms) that no single set of indicators will be able to capture. We should require transparency, program-wide evaluations made available to legislators and taxpayers. If, and only if, there is strong evidence of some kind of market failure should we intervene and override the wishes of parents and forcibly shut down schools. Market failures happen, but many advocates seem to have a hair trigger in identifying them.
- Financial Accountability. Arizona’s Education Savings Account law requires “random, quarterly and annual audits of empowerment scholarship accounts.” This seems appropriate and in line with how financial institutions audit their operations. Interestingly, it seems more likely to spot malfeasance than our current system. Here in the Kansas City area alone, in the last year, we found out that the Belton School District had been getting shorted up to $500,000 per year since 1991 by improperly calculated property taxes, and, if it weren’t for a brave whistleblower, we still might not know that the former superintendent of the St. Joseph public schools had improperly inflated his salary and bilked Missouri taxpayers for over $600,000. Quasi-market or not, random, quarterly, and annual audits are looking a lot more robust now, aren’t they?
- Location and start-ups. Ex ante we don’t know which schools are going to be good and which schools are going to be bad. Even the rigorous vetting processes we see from many charter school authorizers still authorize and establish schools that don’t end up working out. This shouldn’t shock us. Research shows that as many as 3 in 4 firms backed by venture capital firms (which have their own rigorous vetting processes and are investing their own money) never return investors’ capital. Predicting the future is hard. As a result, continuing to centralize power over who can and cannot start schools, or where schools can or cannot locate, seems like a fool’s errand. If there is a case for accountability, it is much stronger for the back end, rather than the front.
The past several weeks have been nasty. That is unfortunate and avoidable. A bit of charity and reflection before dismissing someone with a slightly different conception of how schools should be funded or regulated would go a long way toward promoting civil discourse. If we in the education world can’t model it, who do we think will?