Mike McShane: School choice and accountability in Georgia

North Georgia Christian Academy in Ellijay, Georgia, is one of 855 private schools in the state serving more than 158,000 students. Established in 2003, North Georgia Christian is a top rated, accredited, independent school committed to helping children find God’s purpose for their lives.

Editor’s note: This commentary from McShane, director of national research for EdChoice, appeared Tuesday on the EdChoice website.

As the Georgia Legislature debates a new expansive education savings account program, a familiar cry has arisen from opponents: We cannot possibly send public money to private schools because they are not accountable for it.

Patricia Hugley-Green, a Muscogee County school board member, put voice to this thought when she told WTVM, “That same accountability for testing, that same accountability for having quality-based education, that needs to be also a requirement for private schools.”

Let’s tackle that sentence in two parts. The first implies that Georgia public schools are held accountable for a quality-based education, and the second that Georgia private schools are not. Both are wrong.

With respect to educational quality, it is far from clear that Georgia public schools are in any way held accountable.

If we look at results on the National Assessment for Educational Progress, and we look at the lowest performance category, we see that 41% of Georgia eighth graders scored below basic in math and 31% scored below basic in reading. They could not clear the lowest bar that the exam sets.

And, what’s worse, the trend is moving in the wrong direction. In 2019, only 33% of Georgia eighth graders scored below basic in math and only 28% scored below basic in reading.

What, if anything, has happened to public school leaders as a result of these disturbing levels and trends?

Yes, technically the state of Georgia has an accountability system. It is a complicated, Rube Goldberg-like system that utilizes standardized test scores and several other measures to ostensibly hold schools academically accountable, but little ever comes of the ratings and measurements that they create.

If you want to see it in all of its glory, you can head to the Georgia Department of Education’s website and find the 132-page document it submitted to the Federal Government to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act that details the state’s program. It has so many provisions and alternative measurements and carveouts to make it next to incomprehensible.

Somehow, it does churn out an identification of the lowest 5% of schools, but are they actually held accountable? Not really.

In fact, getting classified as needing comprehensive or targeted school improvement actually qualifies a school for more support from the state. Now, this might be the right course of action, and these schools could very well benefit from that intervention, but it is a far cry from what people think when they hear the word “accountability.”

As an aside, would those who want to make participating private schools part of the state’s accountability system support the state providing additional resources for private schools that score too low on the state’s standardized tests? Something makes me think they wouldn’t.

So now let’s look at the second part of Ms. Hughley-Green’s statement. Are private schools accountable for a quality-based education?

Private schools live or die based on enrollment. Parents have to make an active choice to send their children there. If the educational quality is low or if the school is wasting money on pointless things, parents are in full view and can leave, especially with the financial support that programs like education savings account provide.

There is no 132-page system with standardized testing and alternative measurements and multi-stage equations. There are just their ears and eyes. They can personally examine the work that their child is doing and judge whether or not it is useful or challenging. They can speak to their child’s teacher or principal and ask questions about the education their child is receiving. And again, they can always leave if they don’t like what they find.

No system of schooling is perfect. It is a tall order to educate hundreds of thousands or millions of students from diverse backgrounds and with diverse needs. There will always be some number of schools that underperform. You cannot micromanage that away.

Ultimately, parents are closest to their children, know their children better than anyone else, and have the strongest incentives to get the best possible education for them. That doesn’t mean that they are perfect. That just means that they’re better.

Safeguards must be put in place as a fall back (and things like regular audits are part of existing education savings account programs in other states and should be part of any program going forward), but they should be designed to support and work with parents and give them the best information they need to make informed decisions.

That is how we hold schools truly accountable.

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BY Special to NextSteps