School choice accountability debate: The same thing over and over
In the 1993 movie Groundhog Day Bill Murray’s lead character finds himself reliving the same day in Punxsutawney, PA, over and over again. He despairs and ultimately tries to kill himself over and over again, but after discovering the futility of his effort starts to reexamine his life and priorities.
This is a fitting analogy for the school choice debate in Ohio. Every other year at budget time, lawmakers debate school choice and money. Republicans and their supporters argue for increasing choice, while Democrats and their supporters argue for more rules to constrict choice. This year is no different, but as Republicans took control over the House and the governor’s office earlier this year (they’ve controlled the Senate since 1985) it is their turn to go on the offensive. Over the previous four year’s Governor Strickland and his allies in the Democratic-controlled House tried to defund choice programs and/or bury them with new regulations.
Since February, Republicans have proposed three bills (including the state budget bill) calling for the expansion of both charter schools and voucher. The most expansive proposal (House Bill 136) would make 85 percent of Ohio’s students eligible for scholarships to attend private school. The Cincinnati Enquirer captured the feelings of the current debate when it reported the following exchange:
It’s high time, said Rep. Matt Huffman, the Lima Republican who introduced the bill. Ohio should focus education funding on what individual parents and students want, instead of on what public school officials and teachers say they want, he said.
“This is…about parents and children first and taxpayers second,” he said.
“This is giving away an enormous amount of money,” said state Sen. Tom Sawyer, D-Akron. “There is no oversight in this at all. It’s one of the grave shortcomings in this proposal. But, anytime you’re giving away money, it becomes very popular.”
And, as in previous years, my colleagues and I at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute have entered the fray somewhere in the middle, advocating for a balance between expanding choice and holding all schools accountability for their academic performance. School choice and results-based accountability need to go hand in glove. At least 35 percent of children in the “Ohio 8” cities attend a school other than their district operated neighborhood school. Further, many other Ohio families exercise choice via the real estate market – that is, they buy or rent in a particular neighborhood because of its schools – we are looking at a majority of young Ohioans.
As choice mechanisms proliferate (now including virtual schooling, home schooling, and vouchers along with charters, magnets, and sundry intra- and inter-district options), communities and parents are beginning to understand that educating children is not just something bureaucratic systems do. It’s something that parents select and shape for their daughters and sons – and can change and reshape when needed – much as they select clothes, food, churches, activities, and vacation destinations. But because society also has an interest in the education of its next generation, public policy must set standards, assessments, and accountability mechanisms by which to ensure that educational outcomes are satisfactory, whatever school or mode of schooling a family may elect.
With more than a decade of experience to build on in Ohio, we know the education marketplace left to its own device does not work to the benefit of all children and families. It is supposed to result in parents selecting high-performing schools for their children while shunning low performers. In time, it should lead to either the improvement or closure of weak schools as the good ones gain market share. But in practice, really atrocious schools can languish for years when nobody intervenes. Too many families, particularly in troubled communities simply aren’t – or don’t know how to be – very picky when it comes to choosing schools. They are wont to settle for such (admittedly important) basics as safety, convenience and friendliness and not pay much attention to math scores, graduation rates, and college-going data.
children's education is paid for with public dollars, no matter what
sort of school these children attend, the public has the right, even the
obligation, to know how well those children are learning....
This is why the Fordham Institute supports legislative efforts to more effectively rate the performance of all schools. As voucher programs expand, the academic performance of the children in these programs should be tracked and reported publicly using the state’s value-added progress measure. This will allow for the documentation of student progress and help determine whether or not the programs receiving state support add value to children and taxpayers over time.
When children’s education is paid for with public dollars, no matter what sort of school those children attend, the public has the right, even the obligation, to know how well those children are learning the skills and knowledge that they will need to succeed in further education and in life. Schools that take public dollars to educate children but that cannot demonstrate their educational efficacy in transparent ways should be put on notice. If they can’t fix themselves in a reasonable period of time, this situation must be addressed for the good of the children.
Like the Groundhog Day experience of Bill Murray’s character, the debate around school choice in Ohio seems to repeat itself over and over. Yet, unlike in the movie, Ohio still struggles to learn from the experience. After more than a decade of school choice debates in Ohio, it is obvious that choice alone is no panacea for what ails education. Yet, in tandem with a rigorous accountability system that faithfully tracks and reports student achievement over time school choice offers the best hope for expanding quality education for all of the state’s children.
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