Balancing freedom & justice to shape school choice accountability

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Choice Words blog. It’s one of many pieces written in response to Fordham’s release of a “school choice toolkit” for lawmakers that called for more regulatory accountability measures for “voucher schools.”


Policy-making usually involves trade-offs, finding the right balance between competing objectives and even principles. This is especially true in education, where so much is at stake, both for vulnerable children and for the health of society.

One of the principles that should guide educational policy is that “parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children” (article 26, 3, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in San Francisco in 1948). Officially, at least, this right is acknowledged by almost every nation, and in many of their constitutions; it has been settled law in the United States since the Supreme Court’s 1925 ruling in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (268 U.S. 510).

Americans agree, as Terry Moe showed in Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public (Brookings Institution, 2000). This is especially true of parents for whom public school provision is of inadequate quality. “Among public [school] parents, vouchers are supported by 73 percent of those with family incomes below $20,000 a year, compared to 57 percent of those with incomes above $60,000.   . . . 75 percent of black parents and 71 percent of Hispanic parents, compared to 63 percent of white parents. . . . 72 percent of parents in the bottom tier of districts favor vouchers, while 59 percent of those in the top tier do” (212).

Moe also found, however, that “enthusiasm for regulation is remarkably uniform and cuts across groups and classes – including private [school] parents, who appear quite willing to see the autonomy of their own schools compromised in the interests of public accountability” (299). This expectation of government oversight is also well-established in international law and practice, and specified in the Pierce decision.

On the other hand, if the regulatory hand of government is too heavy, the right of choice becomes meaningless: what’s to choose among schools forced to be alike?

Excessive regulation not only makes parental choice meaningless, it blocks the possibility of making teaching a true profession, attracting and retaining highly talented individuals into careers in education. Many Teach for America alumni go on to establish charter schools where they will enjoy the autonomy to shape a community of educators with a shared vision.

My Belgian colleague Jan De Groof and I have for a decade been studying how different national education systems are organized to support the competing goals of freedom and justice. The third edition (Tilburg: Wolf Legal, 2012), in four volumes, of Balancing Freedom, Autonomy, and Accountability in Education, has about a hundred contributors from around the world and chapters on 65 countries.

Bottom line: the most successful models have clear and measurable expectations for academic outcomes, while leaving individual schools large scope for defining the ‘soft’ outcomes related to character and worldview, as well as for organizing instruction and selecting teachers and other staff.

Our analysis of policies receives research support from an essay by Martin West and Ludger Woessmann, included in volume 4, based on international research. They conclude:

Studies using student-level data from multiple international achievement tests reveal that institutions ensuring competition, autonomy, and accountability within national school systems are associated with substantially higher levels of student performance. . . . the international evidence suggests that policies that allow parents to choose privately operated schools, give schools autonomy, and provide parents with information on student performance have an important role to play (290-1).

While I find their research (spelled out in an excellent book with several German colleagues) thoroughly convincing, my own commitment to strong outcome measures and consequences based upon them, paired with wide latitude to create and maintain truly distinctive schools, is based on pragmatic considerations. Both as a parent of seven children and as a state equity and urban education official for more than two decades, I’m not willing to see educational freedom turn into a free-for-all in which schools compete through flashy promises that are not backed up by the sort of evidence on which parents can rely. Such a flawed system, especially likely to mislead unsophisticated parents, would sacrifice justice for freedom.

Sound educational policy would sacrifice neither justice nor freedom, but find a dynamic balance between them, holding schools accountable for academic outcomes (so no child would, as too frequently at present, attend an inadequate school), while encouraging great diversity in the means taken to achieve those outcomes. Educators with a distinctive pedagogical or religious or secular vision for education with which a sufficient number of parents agree should be free to shape the life of the school on that basis unencumbered by government, unless of course there is convincing evidence that children are being harmed, in which case (as with families) society must intervene.

Freedom, then, with justice, and justice with freedom. Finding the right balance!