Accountability in public education is comprised of customer choice and government regulations, but since consumer choice in K-12 has historically been rare, most accountability discussions today focus exclusively on regulations. These lines from a recent editorial in The New York Times about the proposed reauthorization of No Child Left Behind illustrate my point:
The revised No Child Left Behind Act that passed out of the Senate education committee last week goes too far in relaxing state accountability and federal oversight of student achievement … Lawmakers are right that No Child Left Behind needs to be overhauled. But Congress needs to do this carefully, without retreating from core provisions that require states to do better by children in return for federal aid.
The core provisions the Times is referring to are all regulatory since the NCLB legislation assumes better government regulations are the key to improving student learning. A proper regulatory environment is necessary for a high-performing public education system, but regulations alone are insufficient. Empowered consumers are also necessary, which is why accountability in public education needs to include the proper balance of both.
Finding this healthy balance will be more challenging in public education than it’s been in areas such as food, housing, medicine, and finance because these other sectors have a history of consumer choice. Beginning in the mid-1800s, public education began phasing out consumer choice until by the early 1900s only the wealthy had choice. Had we decided to manage food in the mid-1800s the same way we decided to manage education, every local community today would have an elected food board that would assign each family to a neighborhood food center where they would eat their approved food each day. The only exception would be families wealthy enough to pay food taxes and still purchase food from private providers. Accountability in the food centers would be regulatory only since no choice would exist.
The parental choice movement is expanding rapidly across the country, which means the dialogue around what constitutes accountability in public education should increasingly include consumer choice. To help accelerate this transition, those of us who support full parental choice need to be more explicit and consistent about including consumer choice in our accountability discussions.