Parental choice is part of accountability

words matterAccountability in public education derives from a combination of government regulations and consumer choice.  Historically, because we’ve had so little consumer choice in public education, regulations have been the dominant component of accountability. But now that school choice is becoming more ubiquitous, consumer choice is assuming a more prominent role.

Unfortunately, some of our most important public education policy wonks are devaluing the importance of consumer choice by using the term accountability as a synonym for regulations.

My friend and former colleague here at Step Up For Students, Adam Emerson, in criticizing the lack of required state assessments in Florida’s McKay Scholarship program, recently wrote on his Fordham Institute blog that:

“Virtually no accountability measures, however, exist in most of the nation’s special-education voucher programs, including the largest such program in the United States, Florida’s McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities.”

Parents choose to apply for and use a McKay Scholarship. If their needs are not being met at one of the more than 1,100 Florida private schools accepting the McKay Scholarships, they can vote with their feet and go to another school. To suggest this level of consumer choice equates with “virtually no accountability measures” is wrong.

Adam’s gifted colleague at Fordham, Mike Petrilli, made a similar error a few days later. He wrote that “Indiana’s voucher program has accountability in spades,” then ignored consumer choice and equated accountability only with required student testing and school grades.

Bill Gates assumed accountability and regulations are synonymous in an April 3 Washington Post op-ed on teacher evaluations, writing:

“Teachers want to be accountable to their students. What the country needs are thoughtfully developed teacher evaluation systems that include multiple measures of performance, such as student surveys, classroom observations by experienced colleagues and student test results.”

What the country also needs are parents who are empowered to change teachers when their children’s needs are not being met. Parental empowerment is part of accountability.

Finally, Andy Rotherham, one of K-12 education’s most respected policy wonks, in thinking about where public education is headed, wrote, “the system needs more choice but the system – and choice schools – also need more accountability.”

Again, Andy is using the term accountability as a synonym for regulations and assuming consumer choice is independent of accountability. It’s not.

As the country’s largest private school choice organization, those of us at Step Up For Students are in constant dialogue with public officials in Florida and around the country about how best to balance consumer choice and government compliance in the context of public education accountability. These discussions are complex and difficult enough without education’s leading thinkers inadvertently implying that parental choice has no role in public education accountability.

My plea is that we all be more precise with our language when discussing choice, regulations and accountability.