Two years ago, your editor reminded reformers — especially school choice activists within the movement — about the need to learn from the lessons of scandals that rocked Florida’s McKay voucher program as well as controversies affecting charter schools and the for-profit college sector. Because vouchers and voucher-like tax credits, like charters, and other forms of choice, are relatively new aspects of American public education, they were vulnerable to the same charges of low academic quality and fiscal mismanagement leveled by traditionalists opposed to expanding options. Requiring private schools accepting children using vouchers to participate in state testing regimes — something already done by schools run by the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches — would be a key step towards assuring taxpayers that children were receiving the high-quality education they deserve, provide families with the data on school performance they need to make smart decisions, and ultimately, help reformers make the case for expanding school options for all kids.
Since then, Indiana has embraced the approach suggested by Dropout Nation in its launch of the nation’s largest school voucher program while Louisiana has also made participation in state testing a key part of its expanded choice regime. And this week, in the release of a new report on improving accountability for school choice, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has smartly embraced this approach. Yet the very idea of school choice programs (and the private schools who take taxpayer dollars) being subjected to the same levels of accountability we demand of traditional districts is anathema to some school choice purists — most-notably Jason Bedrick of the Cato Institute’s school reform team, University of Arkansas’ Jay P. Greene, the otherwise-sensible Robert Enlow and Greg Forster at the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation, and Matthew Ladner of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. Their arguments against accountability not only fail to stand up to intellectual and moral scrutiny, but actually give traditionalists reasons for opposing further expansion of choice altogether. School choice cannot expand or succeed without strong accountability measures that can help children attain high-quality options that help them gain the knowledge they need for lifelong success.
Fordham’s report, which was written by Adam Emerson, the think tank’s now-former point man on school choice, comes amid last month’s report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office that D.C.’s Opportunity voucher program and its operator, the D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation, couldn’t verify if schools looking to serve voucher students were eligible to participate in the program, as well didn’t provide families with timely and up-to-date information on private schools so that they could at least shop for options. Those revelations cast an unfortunate pall over the program’s overall success in helping kids in the nation’s capital escape failing traditional district schools, and that of other programs across the nation. So one wouldn’t think Fordham’s recommendations would be considered all that controversial.
Requiring students receiving vouchers to take state tests is the norm for voucher programs in Indiana and Louisiana and required by voucher programs serving Milwaukee and Cleveland, two of the oldest in the nation. As Greene’s University of Arkansas colleague, Patrick Wolf, determined in a 2012 study of Milwaukee’s pioneering voucher program, this move, along with other accountability measures and the choice program’s effort to expand high-quality options, helped children participating in the program achieve “significantly higher levels of reading gains than their carefully matched peers in MPS after four years”. Same is true of Fordham’s recommendation that states publicly disclose the results so that families and taxpayers can know exactly how kids are learning. Such a step will help families make smart decisions about school options based on how well children — especially those from poor and minority backgrounds — are being served.
Meanwhile the think tank’s recommendation that states rank schools serving children receiving vouchers on the quality of their outcomes (and ultimately, weed out those operators failing children) should hardly be cause for controversy. It is nothing more than an extension of efforts within the school reform movement to weed out (and shut down) failing traditional public schools that harm the futures of children, as well as efforts among charter school advocates within the movement to weed out similarly laggard operators. Identifying faltering private schools and barring them from accepting children receiving vouchers wouldn’t lead to them being shut down; after all, they can still continue to peddle their services. But keeping them from receiving taxpayer funding for shoddy instruction and curricula would do plenty for all children.
Yet purists among school choice activists within the movement are aghast that Fordham would even offer such recommendations. Why? For one, there’s the belief that accountability will somehow stifle diversity and innovation in curricula and instruction in private schools. This is a view similar to those offered by opponents of Common Core reading and math standards, a group that includes Cato’s education crew and the Friedman Foundation. As Cato’s Bedrick declares, requiring private schools serving children receiving vouchers to participate in state testing will “make it all but impossible for schools to experiment with new ways of tailoring education to the needs of individual children”.
But this argument doesn’t hold up. For one, Bedrick and his allies can’t offer any evidence that test participation requirements by existing voucher regimes are stifling diversity and innovation. Why? Because it isn’t so. Catholic schools, which participate in state tests, continue to provide high-quality religious-based teaching and curricula throughout the nation, especially to poor and minority children in the nation’s big cities. If anything, testing requirements along with other accountability measures, actually help children in voucher programs attain high-quality education without stifling diversity. This is clear from Wolf’s study of the accountability measures developed for Milwaukee’s voucher program, and clear so far from Indiana’s own voucher initiative.
As for innovation? Certainly there is the amazing work of the Kamehameha Schools in Hawaii in developing culturally-based education for the Native Hawaiian children it serves. But as your editor noted two years ago in a commentary on Common Core, there’s not much of it going on, especially among private schools, in the first place. This lack of innovation cannot be blamed on voucher and tax credit programs; after all, a mere 245,854 children are served by the programs, according to the Alliance for School Choice. Nor is lack of innovation necessarily a bad thing; after all, novel developments in curricula and instruction don’t necessarily lead to improvements in student achievement. But for school choice purists such as Bedrick to argue that requiring private schools serving voucher students to take state tests somehow stifles non-existent innovation is intellectual hogwash. The fact that private schools don’t have to participate in school choice programs at all if testing and other accountability requirements bother them also makes the argument offered by Bedrick and his allies completely specious.
If anything, this requirement, along with other accountability measures for school choice programs, can advance innovation by providing much-needed data on school performance that can be used by school operators to figure out what works and areas of need to help all kids succeed. A private school headmaster, for example, could use state test data along with other data gleaned from diagnostic assessments a school may already use to restructure how teachers are working in classrooms. Entrepreneurial teachers and school leaders, both in private as well as in traditional public and charter settings, can also use the data to launch new schools that serve particular groups of children served by voucher programs.
But this disdain for Fordham’s recommendations among school choice purists isn’t shocking. From their perspective, accountability should be something done by families choosing schools, in short, voting with their feet. Enlow, in particular, argues that families can already make smart decisions without any kind of accountability or school performance data in place for their use. How? Citing data from Friedman Foundation’s recent study on how families in school choice programs make decisions, Enlow essentially declares that families could simply use metrics such as class size ratios, information on school accreditation, even the percentage of a school’s graduates accepted and attending college, as proxies for accountability.
Yet Enlow and his allies know all too well that these input measures are insufficient for use by families for evaluating school options, much less for any form of accountability. Why? Because they don’t show the most-important outcome: How schools are improving student achievement and preparing kids for lifelong success in adulthood. Three decades of research has long ago shown that here is no correlation between smaller class sizes (or student-teacher ratio) and student achievement. The fact that school accreditation is as shoddy as teacher credentialing also makes it insufficient for judging the ability of schools to improve achievement. As for the percentage of students accepted and attending college? This tells families nothing because what really matters is the percentage of kids who actually graduate in three-to-six years; a school can do a poor job of preparing kids for higher ed completion and still send high numbers of kids to college.
Meanwhile Enlow fails to admit is the underlying reason why families judge schools by these measures: Because they don’t have high-quality data on school performance — including test score growth data and even data on how teachers improve student achievement — that they need for better decision-making. Certainly families can make smart decisions if they are provided comprehensive-yet-simple data on school performance. But this cannot be achieved without objective measures of how well schools are serving children. State testing regimes (including analysis of student test data through Value-Added Measurement) are the most-objective and best way to measure school, teacher, and student achievement. Given the high stakes for the futures of children that come with school decisions, Enlow and his allies are being irresponsible in advocating for the continued use of shoddy information that is useless for families, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds who need school choice and high-quality data the most.
But it isn’t just about families. What Enlow, Bedrick, Ladner, and Forster fail to acknowledge is that the expansion of school choice cannot continue without assuring taxpayers that the programs will be operated effectively and that they will do a better job than traditional districts of improving student achievement. Sure, three decades of research clearly shows that expanding school choice improves student achievement. But as I noted two years ago, school choice isn’t an unqualified success. When choice programs aren’t subjected to strong accountability and oversight, they become vulnerable to scandals that do damage to the cause of expanding school choice, even if they are isolated incidents compared to their overwhelming benefits. Especially given that choice programs are relatively new players in American public education, and thus vulnerable to attacks from traditionalists, choice activists, along with the rest of the reform movement, should do all they can to ensure that the initiatives are working to the benefit of the kids, families, and taxpayers they serve.
More importantly, strong accountability is at the heart of the school reform movement itself. The school reform movement has long ago showed that it isn’t enough for taxpayers and families to trust traditional districts. Demanding that all school operators provide high-quality instruction and curricula to our children is critical to stemming an education crisis that condemns far too many kids to the abyss. We cannot demand accountability for traditional districts and not for choice programs. It is simply intellectually, ethically, and morally unacceptable for school choice purists to tell taxpayers to simply trust that the programs are working properly. It also makes taking such a stance makes school choice purists no different than traditionalists who make the same arguments to defend failing traditional district schools.
Reformers shouldn’t have to save the expansion of school choice from true-believers more-concerned with dogmatically defending their favored reform than with implementing the kind of accountability necessary for ensuring children are being properly served — and ultimately, the futures of children for whom they say they are concerned. Bedrick, Enlow, Ladner, Forster and other school choice purists should stop arguing against Fordham’s sensible recommendations, and should work on developing new accountability measures that can bolster support for expanding school choice all kids deserve.