Jay and Rick: Get real about voucher-school accountability

It’s no fun to argue with friends—at least not about serious matters—and worse to find respected colleagues slipping into error or avoiding reality. But that’s my regretful take on where Jay Greene and Rick Hess have headed on the (admittedly tricky) issue of accountability for voucher schools.

The policy question is indisputably important: are voucher-bearing kids, their parents, and the policymakers and taxpayers who make their participation possible well served by the education they acquire at the private schools they attend? Is this a good investment of public dollars? Is it worth the political tussles that such programs invariably trigger?

Similar questions must be asked about youngsters who benefit from tax-credit scholarships, the difference being that the dollars involved in those programs are not actually “public.” Rather, they are monies that never enter the public fisc because they are routed into the scholarship programs instead. But that, too, is an education investment arising from politically fraught decisions by policy makers—and anyone who cares about either an individual child’s education or the cultivation of an educated society must also ask whether these schools are effective.

Believing that these are important matters, we at Fordham have, on several occasions, urged an “accountability” regime for private-school-choice programs that includes both test results and fiscal transparency on the part of participating schools. We’ve also recommended a “sliding scale” whereby a school’s continued participation in the program would hinge in part on the extent of its dependence on revenues from that program.

Yes, that’s complicated, arguable, and worthy of debate.

But the recent criticisms of the Fordham approach by Jay and Rick have focused primarily on the prior question of how anyone knows how the kids and schools are doing.

Our team believes that, in a country that judges student achievement and school effectiveness in the public sector primarily by test results—and yes, we’re keenly aware of the limits of that approach—voucher-bearing kids should also take tests whose results can be compared with those of their public-school peers.

The simplest way to do this, and certainly the way that allows the most direct comparisons, is for voucher students to take the same tests as their peers, which means the state tests, now undergoing review and replacement in many jurisdictions (at least in math and English) as a result of the Common Core standards.

That’s what we have proposed. We’re also mindful that other tests, both criterion- and norm-based, might do the job, so long as their results are made public in ways that make comparisons and evaluations possible.

Lots of private schools do this already, of course, and our surveys of school leaders indicate that being required to do this is not a heinous problem for most of them and is certainly not a deal breaker when it comes to participating in the voucher or scholarship program. (Other requirements would be, particularly if they touch on admissions or religion.) Indeed, several of the country’s largest extant voucher programs (Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, and Milwaukee) already mandate some version of such testing on the part of participating private schools.

So what’s the big deal with Jay and Rick?

Though he’s spent much of his career drawing policy conclusions from test results, Jay now favors doing away with testing altogether! He would substitute market mechanisms (in the public-education sector as well as the private) and would trust the market to hold schools accountable. This is to say that he would let parents (and students) decide whether the education is satisfactory both for them (the “private-good” aspect of education) and for the larger society (the “public-good” aspect.)

We at Fordham favor school choice (in every sector) as ardently as Jay does, but it’s insane to expect this marketplace to yield quality control, efficiency, and accountability for educational outcomes. There are at least a dozen reasons why it simply doesn’t work that way. (For starters, many consumers are satisfied with school characteristics that have little to do with academic achievement, and many schools are adept at marketing to them—and making claims that are about as true as McDonalds’s claims to foster health and nutrition. We could go on.)

Rick, to his credit, understands that testing is here to stay and that it serves a purpose, though he, too, is keenly aware of its limitations, especially when only reading and math are assessed. His big problem with the Fordham approach seems to be concern about the “camel’s nose” of government regulation—“regulatory creep” he terms it—in the private-school sphere. (“What’s to stop a well-intentioned, enterprising legislator from suggesting those schools really ought to have certified teachers…”)

That’s a legitimate worry—especially in the regulation-crazed Obama era—but it’s one that applies to every sphere of life that government brushes up against. Indeed, it already applies to private schools, which must be recognized by their states (as satisfying compulsory-education laws); must comply with sundry zoning, fire, and safety rules and building codes; must ensure that their pupils are vaccinated; and on and on. Because private schools in many states already receive various forms of government assistance (textbooks and busing, for instance), they must already comply with various added rules and conditions. In places where they receive voucher-bearing pupils, they face even more hassles. Here, for example, is a tiny excerpt from Florida’s rules for private schools taking part in that state’s much-admired McKay Scholarship Program (for youngsters with disabilities):

“The Scholarship Compliance Form delineates private school reporting requirements specified pursuant to Section 1002.42, F.S., and statutory and regulatory requirements related to the areas of school location and contact information; school ownership; affiliation; financial solvency; school administration; school staffing; school program; student health, safety, and welfare; student records; school facility; and submission of the scholarship compliance form.”

Regulatory creep, indeed. But these things are dealt with through the same political mechanisms that give rise to voucher programs in the first place. Schools and organizations (and individuals) that find a given requirement objectionable will push back against it—and, if they’re effective, will block it or have it modified. If participation is too onerous, a school remains free to decline to participate in the program. If too many schools decline, the program won’t accomplish much and its initial purpose will be defeated. That’s how politics and policymaking work, as Rick well knows.

That’s probably why he’s pushing back himself, in this case against the Fordham proposal. But what would he do instead? Trust the market, like Jay? At some point, he really needs to descend from Mt. Olympus and enter the real world of real decisions about actual programs, not just point out what could go wrong with everybody else’s proposal.

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