Vouchers and accountability, a sliding scale

As we write, the fate of the District of Columbia voucher initiative (a.k.a. Opportunity Scholarship Program) hangs in the balance. Ambiguous, ambivalent remarks from President Obama's camp and Secretary Duncan certainly haven't helped to secure its future and its Congressional and interest-group enemies seem bent on ending it--with a possible reprieve for current beneficiaries. Many are outraged, as we believe they should be, even as others look forward to playing taps. Perhaps the foremost question that has resonated through these debates is, "are voucher programs like this one a good use of taxpayer money?"

Programs such as D.C.'s are under assault from many directions in part because participating private schools haven't openly provided the information--the test scores, the graduation rates, and the financial data--to answer this question. The public is wearying of this lack of transparency and opponents are using that weariness to their advantage.

Take Wisconsin and our home state of Ohio, for example, which together provide vouchers for more than 30,000 students. In both states, Democratic governors are pushing new policies that would up the ante on "accountability" for private schools participating in the voucher programs. In Ohio, Governor Ted Strickland would require that every pupil in a participating private school sit for the state test, even if just a single student receives a state voucher. But is this the best way to liberate important information from participating private schools? We explore this issue in "When Private Schools Take Public Dollars: What's the Place of Accountability in School Voucher Programs?" released on Tuesday by the Fordham Institute.

Put aside for now the question of whether voucher programs will continue to exist--most likely, they will, and they might even multiply, as they have in recent years. Turn instead to the matter of return on investment. One of the foremost criticisms of voucher programs (and their cousins, such as tax credit programs) is their relative lack of transparency. In an era that increasingly demands accountability from all recipients of public dollars and providers of goods and services in which the public has a short or long-term interest--nowhere is this truer than in K-12 education in the days of NCLB--private schools that receive voucher-bearing pupils have typically been accountable only to the marketplace. Money goes in--taxpayer money--and it may be that plenty of learning follows, but how is one to know?  

School-choice advocates have typically responded that these are private schools, meant to be different from public--isn't that the point of giving kids access to them?--and that parents, educators, and markets are the best gauge of their success. It is also said that if the public-accountability burden grows heavy, schools will refuse to participate such programs, thus defeating their very purpose. Critics, however, insist that public dollars spent to educate K-12 pupils demand public transparency and accountability no matter who operates the schools. In practice, most extant voucher programs end up with a set of compromises that follow no particular pattern and, more often than not, make scant policy sense.

Weary of this stale debate and the makeshift accountability arrangements that typically follow, we set out to determine whether a more sensible approach could be devised. To inform and assist us in that quest, we enlisted twenty experts from the school choice world--scholars, advocates, program administrators, and private school leaders.           

We placed a series of questions before them, split between two straightforward categories: "inputs" (e.g., teacher certification and qualifications, admissions policies, and discipline procedures) and "outputs" (e.g., academic performance and financial reporting, in particular). Most of the assemblage agreed that voucher programs should exercise a very light touch in the former area; participating private schools should not face new regulation of their day-to-day operations. They should generally be left to make their own decisions about staff, admissions, discipline, curriculum, and religion.

The experts also tended to agree about parental information and program evaluation. Everyone sees value in helping parents make informed choices by providing them with data about how well their children are performing. Most also believe that voucher programs as a whole should be rigorously evaluated by third-party analysts.

But the consensus broke down when it comes to making school results and financial audits transparent. Here the school choice movement remains fractured. At one end are those who would continue to "let the market rule," and resist public transparency or accountability around school-level results. At the other end, some would, in effect, treat private schools like charter schools and empower government or its agent to intervene if individual schools do not perform adequately. And lots and lots of variegated opinions in between.

Our own preferred solution is, indeed, somewhere in between, a relatively simple and (we hope) judicious middle path that will likely please no purists but that might just work. Picture a sliding scale: the more voucher-bearing students a school enrolls, the greater its obligations for transparency and accountability. Schools that continue to draw the majority of their revenues from private sources should be treated more like other private schools, while those that depend primarily on public dollars should be treated more like public schools.

This approach respects the autonomy of schools that participate in a limited way in voucher programs and connate forms of indirect public subsidy. Yet it also acknowledges that private schools that live predominantly on public funds--whether direct or indirect--are closer to being public schools, and thus should face increasing levels of public transparency and accountability. The transparency/accountability obligations of schools should also rise in proportion to the generosity of the voucher program itself. Private schools that are expected to make do on vouchers far smaller than the sums being spent on public school pupils in the community ought to bear a lighter burden than those whose students are more adequately aided.

No solution to so fractious a problem can be perfect. Ours is at least worth trying, certainly until more is known about student results, parent behavior, and school responses in the presence of vouchers and kindred funding systems--and until more states deploy higher standards and better tests. Nothing we recommend, however, would add to the "input" or operational burdens on private schools; it's all keyed to their performance. Particularly if private schools are shielded from regulation of their day-to-day affairs, we think this approach makes a lot of sense. Now the question is whether any policymakers want to experiment with it in the real world. It might not save the scholarships of 1,700 needy D.C. students, but it could benefit their successors.

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