Similar to food, medicine, and housing, accountability in public education is a balance of government regulations and customer choice, and finding the proper balance is increasingly important as parental choice becomes more prevalent. Generally regulations and choice are inversely related such that as one increases the other decreases.
When I was growing up we had only one choice for phone service, which meant our phone company was highly regulated. Government regulators determined the services we were provided and their costs, and even prohibited consumers from owning phones. This began to change in 1984 when the government broke up AT&T’s monopoly and allowed more companies to enter telecommunications. More providers led to consumers having more choices and the telecommunications industry being less regulated. Today consumers may own phones and may pick from a plethora of service and cost plans.
A similar rebalancing of regulations and consumer choice is occurring in public education. School district dominance is slowly eroding as public education expands and incorporates new providers such as charter schools, virtual schools, dual enrollment programs and private schools accepting publicly funded vouchers and scholarships.
School boards and teacher unions are resisting this transformation and arguing that overregulated district schools are unfairly having to compete with less regulated choice schools. But their solution — to require that all publicly funded schools adhere to the same regulations — ignores the consumer choice component of accountability. Choice schools should be less regulated than non-choice schools, just as telecommunications companies today are less regulated that AT&T was in 1980. If school districts want to reduce the regulatory burdens on their schools and level the regulatory playing field, they should convert them to charter schools.
The macro forces driving change throughout our society are also transforming public education. Inevitably the future of public education will include more customer choice, more diverse providers and less regulation. Therefore, public education needs a well balanced accountability system that reflects these new realities.