Balancing choice, regs in public education

seesawMy recent post about the importance of including parental choice in our definition of public education accountability drew a thoughtful response from Melissa Webber, the parent of a special needs child.

She writes, “I’m not sure I agree with the writer’s explanation of accountability. While I support parental choice and have in the past taken advantage of the McKay Scholarship, I think choice is a separate issue not to be confused with accountability unless parent empowerment actually affects positive change of a program to bring it up to regulation standards. One of the private schools I visited had no certified teacher, made no attempt to comply with sunshine standards and they weren’t bound to provide services spelled out in Blake’s IEP. Basically, it served as a disorganized daycare for middle school ESE kids. It was an easy choice for me to opt for another public school program. However, my choice to do so did not make the school more accountable. There should be much more oversight to insure at least minimal standards are met so the children of less informed parents do not suffer in the name of choice.”

The public good is best served when public education operates with maximum effectiveness and efficiency. Highly effective and efficient schools are best possible through a combination of regulations and consumer choice. Regulations provide the floor below which no school should operate, but regulations alone can’t produce excellence. Excellence requires consumer choice.

Ron Matus’ recent story about one of Florida’s top charter schools included this quote from the school’s founder and principal, Yalcin Akin: “If they like us, they come to our school. If they don’t like us, they don’t come. We have to have a high level of customer service and a high level of performance – or we will not survive.”

This necessity to meet parents’ needs or go out of business is part of accountability, and helps fuel the drive for excellence. Last year, Akin’s school had a waiting list of about 1,500 students.

Now consider Melrose Elementary in St. Petersburg. Only one student chose to attend Melrose’s magnet program this year. All the other Melrose students were assigned there by the school board and, if they don’t show up, their parents can be sent to jail.

Melrose is more highly regulated than Akin’s charter school, but it is not more accountable. As long as students are forced by law to attend Melrose, it won’t go out of business, regardless of its effectiveness.

In her comments, Ms. Webber illustrated the role of parental choice in accountability. When she determined Blake’s private school wasn’t meeting his needs, she moved him. Private schools occasionally go out of business because parents are unhappy with the quality of their services.

The importance of finding the proper balance between regulation and parental choice in the context of public education is the key concern Ms. Webber is raising, and I agree with her that achieving this balance is important. The accountability system for district schools in Florida should have less regulation and more parental choice, and some private schools receiving public funds should be subjected to more financial regulations. I also agree that all parents need more information and support to help them make better choices for their children.

As parents continue to demand more influence over where and how their children are educated, finding the proper accountability balance between regulations and parental choice will be an ongoing challenge. Hopefully, with the help of engaged parents such as Ms. Webber, we’ll get this right.

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BY Doug Tuthill

A lifelong educator and former teacher union president, Tuthill has been president of Step Up For Students since August 2008.