School choice and accountability: Finding the right balance

Editor’s note: This article wades into the ongoing debate over private school choice and public accountability. For background see here, here, here, here, and here.

Policymaking usually involves trade-offs, finding the right balance between competing objectives and even principles. This is especially true in education, where so much is at stake, both for vulnerable children and for the health of society.

One of the principles that should guide education policy is that “parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children” (article 26, 3, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in San Francisco in 1948). Officially, at least, this right is acknowledged by almost every nation and is enshrined in many of their constitutions; it has been settled law in the United States since the Supreme Court’s 1925 ruling in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (268 U.S. 510).

Americans agree, as Terry Moe showed in Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public. This is especially true of parents for whom public-school provision is of inadequate quality. “Among public [school] parents,” Moe wrote, “vouchers are supported by 73 percent of those with family incomes below $20,000 a year, compared to 57 percent of those with incomes above $60,000. . . .75 percent of black parents and 71 percent of Hispanic parents, compared to 63 percent of white parents. . . .72 percent of parents in the bottom tier of districts favor vouchers, while 59 percent of those in the top tier do.”

Moe also found, however, that “enthusiasm for regulation is remarkably uniform and cuts across groups and classes—including private [school] parents, who appear quite willing to see the autonomy of their own schools compromised in the interests of public accountability.” This expectation of government oversight is also well established in international law, as well as in the Pierce decision.

On the other hand, if the regulatory hand of government is too heavy, the right of choice becomes meaningless: what’s to choose among schools that are forced to be alike?

Excessive regulation not only makes parental choice meaningless, it also blocks the possibility of making teaching a true profession, attracting and retaining highly talented individuals into careers in education. Many Teach For America alumni/ae go on to establish charter schools where they will enjoy the autonomy to shape a community of educators with a shared vision.

My Belgian colleague Jan De Groof and I have for a decade been studying how different national education systems are organized to support the competing goals of freedom and justice. The third edition of Balancing Freedom, Autonomy, and Accountability in Education has about a hundred contributors from around the world and chapters on sixty-five countries.

Bottom line: the most successful models have clear and measurable expectations for academic outcomes, while leaving individual schools wide scope for defining the “soft” outcomes related to character and worldview, as well as for organizing instruction and selecting teachers and other staff.

Our analysis of policies receives research support from a research-based essay by Martin West and Ludger Woessmann, included in volume 4 of Balancing Freedom. They conclude,

Studies using student-level data from multiple international achievement tests reveal that institutions ensuring competition, autonomy, and accountability within national school systems are associated with substantially higher levels of student performance. . . . the international evidence suggests that policies that allow parents to choose privately operated schools, give schools autonomy, and provide parents with information on student performance have an important role to play (290-1).

While I find their research thoroughly convincing, my own commitment to strong outcome measures and consequences based upon them, paired with wide latitude to create and maintain truly distinctive schools, is also based on pragmatic considerations. Both as a parent of seven children and as a state equity and urban education official for more than two decades, I’m not willing to see educational freedom turn into a free-for-all in which schools compete through flashy promises that are not backed up by the sort of evidence on which parents can rely, particularly when tax dollars are in play. Such a flawed system, especially likely to mislead unsophisticated parents, would sacrifice justice for freedom.

Sound education policy sacrifices neither justice nor freedom but finds a dynamic balance between them, holding schools accountable for academic outcomes (so no child would attend an inadequate school, as too many do today), while encouraging great diversity in the means taken to achieve those outcomes. Educators with a distinctive pedagogical, religious, or secular vision for education that attracts a sufficient number of parents should be free to shape the school on that basis, unencumbered by government, unless of course there is convincing evidence that children are being harmed, in which case (as with families) society must intervene.

Freedom, then, with justice, and justice with freedom. Finding the right balance!

Charles Glenn is a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Boston University. From 1970 to 1991, he was the director of urban education and equity efforts for the Massachusetts Department of Education.

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