Opinion: School choice only works when paired with accountability

Jarod Apperson is a doctoral student in economics at Georgia State University and one of the best education data analysts in the state.

In this piece, Apperson responds to a recent column by school choice advocate Glenn Delk in support of education savings accounts.

By Jarod Apperson

Over the past 50 years, the expansion of educational choice has become a favorite rallying cry of politicians and other education advocates who view it as an avenue to greater educational opportunities for students.  In 1962, Milton Friedman, one of the earliest advocates for educational choice, laid out a rationale for moving away from the current system to an alternative system where the government played a less authoritative role in designing and implementing education.

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

From these beginnings, a number of ideas have emerged including an opinion recently presented on the Get Schooled blog that Georgia should move toward funding education through an education savings account, which would provide parents $8,000 annually to spend as they saw fit on the education of their children.  In many ways, I agree with the goals of those who advocate for additional choice; however, I strongly believe that Georgia will achieve better outcomes by pairing choice with accountability.

An often under-considered problem with education savings accounts and other voucher programs, at least as they are typically implemented, is the absence of oversight for the schools being funded by the public and the lack of accountability they have for accomplishing the public’s goals.

We have publicly funded education for a reason.  As a society, we believe that we are better off when children grow into constructive citizens and productive members of the economy.  We choose to subsidize the educational cost of students with the expectation of achieving this goal.

Not all of society’s goals are easily measured; however, some are.  For example, we know that students who develop stronger math and literacy skills as a result of having better teachers or learning in smaller classes eventually earn more money as adults, signaling that they have developed into more productive members of the economy.

While parental choice can sometimes lead to better outcomes, it may not always accomplish society’s goals.  Taken to the extreme, what if some parents want their children to become karate experts, but are opposed to literacy and science?  Or in a more realistic example, what if some parents lack the skills needed to evaluate school quality and unintentionally send their child to a low-quality school that fails to develop the child’s potential?

In cases where parental choice does not lead to the accomplishment of society’s goals, society should not be expected to fund a student’s education.  Instead, society has a right to expect that any institution receiving funding be held accountable for accomplishing the shared goals of public education.  A mechanism for such oversight is absent in most voucher and educational savings accounts programs across the country.

Through a tax credit program, Georgia already provides significant amounts of funding to independent schools every year.  However, those schools are not evaluated for their quality.  Traditional public schools are expected to meet certain benchmarks that measure the learning their students have achieved.  Why should publicly funded independent schools not be held to the same standard?

Georgia is not alone in its failure to develop strong accountability systems for independent schools funded with public money.  The problem is so widespread that researchers have struggled to evaluate the effectiveness of most voucher programs.  However, we do have some evidence on parental choice from charter schools which are required to take annual state exams.  That evidence shows that parental choice alone is not enough.

As charter schools have expanded across the nation, we have seen the benefits of oversight in ensuring consistent and high-quality education is delivered to students.  Massachusetts has a record of strong oversight while Arizona, Michigan, and Ohio are known for their lax accountability.  The quality of charter schools in those states, as measured by student learning on annual exams, is consistent with the track record they have established for accountability.  Boston's charters significantly outperformed others around the nation in a CREDO analysis published earlier this year.

In many ways, implementing an education savings account program without significant changes in the way Georgia holds schools accountable, is similar to the choice that Arizona, Michigan, and Ohio made to provide lax oversight of their charter schools.  We should instead follow Massachusetts' lead.

Parental choice is a component of education reform, but it should be paired with accountability mechanisms that ensure schools are achieving society’s goals.  Without accountability, the public cannot be assured that their investments in education are being implemented effectively.

We can all agree that the historical structure of zoned schools has disenfranchised many of our society’s most vulnerable students by forcing them to attend low-quality schools.  However, parental choice is not a silver-bullet solution to this problem.  Instead, our state will benefit from a balanced approach that pairs choice with accountability.