School choice, accountability & the problem with sameness

penaltyAccountability in education has been a contentious issue for decades. Unfortunately, the word accountability is too often used to mean “sameness” rather than “to be held responsible for results.” The misuse of the term complicates school choice debates as both choice supporters and critics tend to forget the political and historical context surrounding education “accountability.”

Take Wisconsin’s voucher program. Republican lawmakers proposed an “accountability” bill in late 2013 that would have required private schools accepting voucher students to a) use the same state standards b) use the same state test to measure student achievement c) be graded on performance in the same manner as public schools and d) face sanctions for low-performance.

Democrats and the teacher union in Wisconsin wanted even more “accountability,” arguing the need for state certified teachers in participating private schools as well.

Only “sanctions for low-performance” meet the definition of “accountability.” Sanctions, such as closing or restructuring schools, are a means of holding schools responsible for results. The rest are either inputs – believed by some to be necessary for desired results – or are a means of measuring results.

How, for example, does requiring all private school teachers to be state certified hold schools responsible for results? A state certified teacher is an input, not a result. This is clearly an example of someone using the word “accountability” to mean “sameness,” not “holding responsible for results.”

The misuse of the term appears to be rooted in a belief that it might be unfair, or even hypocritical, to operate school choice programs without subjecting private schools to the same rules as traditional district schools. A little history is in order.

Before No Child Left Behind (NCLB), or even Florida’s A+ accountability program, public school districts had insulated themselves from meaningful accountability. Students were assigned to schools and parents had no choice in the matter beyond relocating to another area. As a result, schools were guaranteed to receive a steady flow of funds with little to no consequences for poor performance.

Accountability legislation such as NCLB and Florida’s A+ program were indeed imposed upon unwilling districts. Later, President Obama spent billions through Race to the Top to encourage districts to improve accountability. These programs used measurements (student tests) to determine results. If the results showed poor performance, schools would be subjected to policies aimed at improvement.

The truth, though, is that most of these policies are still fairly mild. Schools may be required to provide tutors or special after-school programs. Districts may send in emergency leadership and professional development teams. School staff may be shuffled between schools within the district. But closing down district schools, converting them to charters, or hiring private management companies to operate schools, is rare. And while NCLB also requires districts to allow students to transfer to higher-performing public schools, many districts resist simply by failing to inform parents of their legal rights.

School choice is a clear form of accountability. If parents are unsatisfied with the results for their own individual child, they are permitted to choose another school. Many districts still reject school choice as an accountability tool (even when school choice is limited to other public schools), but private voucher schools are subjected to this very real accountability every day. Given this important distinction, it is not unfair, or hypocritical, to hold private schools to different accountability rules.

Encouraging families to leave low-performing charter or private schools they chose is another matter, and one we need to start discussing soon. But it is not an issue that requires the exact same standards, curriculum, tests, grading scales and teacher inputs as public schools.

To be sure, finding the right balance between accountability through parental choice & accountability through government regulations isn’t easy. But as we all strive to consider the complications and weigh the tradeoffs, I think it’s good to keep this in mind: Sameness is not necessary to hold school choice programs accountable. But sameness can threaten the students who want something different, and the schools willing to offer it.


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BY Patrick R. Gibbons

Patrick Gibbons is public affairs manager at Step Up for Students and a research fellow for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. A former teacher, he lived in Las Vegas, Nev., for five years, where he worked as an education writer and researcher. He can be reached at (813) 498.1991 or emailed at Follow Patrick on Twitter: at @PatrickRGibbons and @redefinEDonline.


Basically you think the public should just give them money and take their word for it that everything is fine? That just because parents are there whatever happens is okay.

Patrick R. Gibbons

Hi Chris,

Good morning. Thanks for the comment but that is not at all what I said.

In fact, Florida’s tax credit scholars are already tested. That said, a test is just a measurement of results. Accountability is what you do with the results. Giving kids/parents the right to choose another public, charter or private school (whether they attend a low performing voucher school or not) is something we already do in school choice programs. Encouraging students to find and enroll in better private schools – and helping lower performing private schools improve – is something we should be talking about. Taking the same test is not accountability.

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