Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Why is it so difficult to hold schools accountable?

Jerry Stratton, October 23, 2019

Round Rock High School report card

This is part of what a Texas school accountability rating looks like.

Thinking about the backhanded Occupy Democrat campaign for school choice reminded me that back in January, I was at a presentation where Monty Exter of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, expressed confusion about why it is so difficult to tell when a teacher is doing well compared to other industries. At the same time, he complained about relying on standardized tests to measure student outcome, in order to determine whether the teachers are teaching well.

Of course, the reason it’s harder to acknowledge merit in education compared to other industries is that parents cannot pull their dollars from a failing school and transfer them to a successful school.

There are a lot of teachers who complain, justifiably, about too much paperwork, especially standardized tests. They’re a one-size-fits-all mechanism that can’t be customized to the classroom or the student.

But failing the ability to do what they’d do for any other industry failing their children—switch to someone who isn’t failing—parents will demand some form of testing. Testing is a substitute for accountability. Accountability can only come when students and parents are free to take their money and go elsewhere. But because parents don’t have that choice, they ask for substitutes. Testing tries to simulate accountability in a monopoly. Unless you want to give parents the ability to fire public school teachers, standardized testing is the only substitute for choice.

The reason parents demand one-size-fits-all testing is that school administrators and union administrators demand one-size-fits-all schools. Parents can’t choose where to send their kids without paying twice, so they demand some other form of accountability. Sadly, simulating accountability in government schools will probably work about as well as simulating accountability in government health care. It is very difficult to ensure that a monopoly is accountable. Monopolies cater to the bureaucrats who control the checkbook, not the taxpayers who pay into it. As with doctors and hospitals, only choice makes schools accountable. Only pluralistic schools are accountable, and they are accountable because they are accountable directly to the parents. In a system of choice, it is the parents who control the money.

This is what accountability looks like: I hire the school to teach my children. If they don’t do a good job teaching my children I fire them and hire someone else.

A monopolistic education is always going to be unaccountable. But it’s worse the more the federal government is involved. No one in the United States is closer to the child than the child’s parents. No one in the United States is more remote from the child than the federal government.

government cheese

Government schools: one cheese fits all.

Bureaucrats always think they know better than us what our choices should be, and the further they are from us, the more they will disagree about what’s best for us and the less sense their choices will make. They think they know better what kind of insurance coverage we should have, so they make it illegal buy the insurance we want. We should let the bureaucrat make our health decisions, we should let the bureaucrat choose our doctor and what medicine we take. Otherwise we’ll make the wrong decision—where “wrong” is defined as “some other decision than they’d make for us”. They want to decide what risk level everyone accepts, but every individual is comfortable with a different risk level. So they legislate the same risk level to everyone, and nobody is happy.

Nor do they want to let us buy the education we want. A one-size-fits-all approach in education ends up looking a lot like a one-size-fits all approach in health care. In both cases, they eventually have to point a gun at us to force us to make the choice they want us to make.

The desires of far-away bureaucrats will never be as close to the needs of a child as the desires of that child’s parents.

Even the choice of getting out of the way should not be enforced at the federal level. The federal government should get out of the way of the states, too. If states want to maintain unwieldy bureaucracies, let them. If states want to give parents the choice of firing bad schools and switching to good schools, the federal government and the federal court should stay out of their way.

Unlike the left, I do not want to tell the rest of the country what to do. Let fifty solutions bloom.

The federal government should also get rid of their paperwork accountability simulations that teachers complain so much about. The No Child Left Behind paperwork, the Every Student Succeeds paperwork. This red tape is meant to ensure that federal funds are doing good in lieu of parental choice.

The trade-off, of course, is to put parental choice back in play. Federal funds should follow the student, not the school. Programs should be school-agnostic. If a parent whose child qualifies for a program in one school takes their child to a similar program in another school—even a parochial or private school—that money should follow the child.

That’s how schools can be held accountable. That’s how the federal government can know it is using our money well: by making the hard choice of paying attention to the choices that parents make.

In response to The Washington, DC Prison Experiment: When public schools are mandated for the underprivileged and alternatives are shut down, abusive behavior on the part of school officials to students is inevitable.