Purists vs. hawks in the charter debate

Ohio’s
charter school community has been split into two camps since the inception of
the state’s first charter law in 1997. The first camp – I’ll call free-market
purists – believes that charter schools should be afforded the same rights as
private schools and as such be given maximum freedom of operations. The
free-market purists argue that when it comes to charter schools the role of the
state is little more than to distribute public dollars for a child’s education.
As long as parents decide to send children to a school, no more
“accountability” is necessary for performance.

In
short, if there is market demand for a school – and the school is in compliance
with basic regulations like fire and health and safety codes – then no more
evidence is needed to keep the state dollars flowing. Free-market purists
believe that school choice is an end in itself. If public policy creates a
marketplace of school options then issues of school quality will work
themselves out as parents will naturally seek quality and abandon failure.
Free-market purists believe school operators know best what families and
children need and that the state should have no say in matters of school
“quality” and academic performance.

The
second camp of school-choice supporters – I’ll call accountability hawks –
believes that market demand for schools is important (no child should be
trapped in a failing, monopolistic school system), but of equal importance is
holding schools that receive taxpayer dollars accountable for their academic
and fiscal performance. Accountability hawks – of which I am one – believe that
the state has an inherent interest in ensuring that all children receive a
quality education because the taxpayers footing the bill deserve outcomes for
their investments. More importantly, citizens need to know that future
generations are provided with the knowledge and skills needed to perpetuate a
good and just society.

Accountability
hawks take inspiration from the writings of Alexander Hamilton, et al. who
wrote in Federalist No. 51 that:

Ambition
must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected
with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human
nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of
government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections
on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If
angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government
would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men
over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the
government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control
itself.

For
public education to work, as in a republic itself, there needs to be a system
of checks and balances in place. Everyone in public education benefits from
transparency and accountability, from having someone watching over their
shoulder, giving them feedback on performance, and holding them to account for
progress. Rewards can take many forms (promotions, accolades, bonuses,
diplomas, etc.) and so can interventions (replace the principal, require summer
school, put the school on probation, etc.). But, accountability hawks believe
nobody is better off when information is concealed, when self-interest trumps
performance, or when ill-considered financial incentives tempt one to tolerate
and even expand academic mediocrity.

With
proper checks and balances in place between school operators, school governance
structures (boards of education and charter authorizers), and the state, school
choice is more apt to deliver performance and avoid scandal than if schools are
simply left alone to operate free of external demands beyond market forces.
We’ve seen these two views clash publicly in recent months in Ohio. In the debate around the state’s most recent
biennial budget the Republican-controlled House sought to reshape Ohio’s
charter school program around the “free-market purist” position while the
Republican-controlled Senate pursued policies better-aligned to the position of
“accountability hawks.”

More
recently, the Ohio Department of Education (which was required to become a
charter school authorizer as part of a compromise in the biennial budget debate
between the House and Senate) rejected charter applications from the
Akron-based for-profit charter operator White Hat. White Hat management sought
an arrangement as school operator that would have given the company carte
blanche control over all school operations and state dollars received. The
department’s arguments for rejecting the White Hat applications were very much
aligned with the principles of “accountability hawks.” Specifically, school
operators, the department argued, must be answerable to non-profit governing
boards that provide a check on school spending and school performance issues.

Taking
a phrase from Hamilton, if all charter operators were angels we wouldn’t need
charter school accountability beyond market forces (and likewise in the
district sector of public education). But, history has taught us that not all
charter operators are angelic in their motives and pursuits. As such we need
accountable hawks to keep charter schools honest and focused on serving the
needs of children and taxpayers first.

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