Many argue that since traditional public schools face democratic accountability, parents need no school choice. Yet the use of term accountability recalls the delicious line in The Princess Bride when, after the arrogant, erudite Vizzini (played by Wallace Shawn) repeatedly shouted “inconceivable” when repeatedly proved wrong, simple swordsman, Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin), answered “you keep using that word—I do not think it means what you think it means.” In most endeavors, accountability means the possibility of losing income, even employment. President Trump might face accountability from impeachment, or by voters saying “you’re fired.” Corporate leaders, at least when their governing boards pay attention, sometimes face termination. In most of the global economy, much of the time those performing in what principals consider an unsatisfactory manner must seek alternative employment.
Yet accountability means something very different in public administration generally, and in public education in particular, for at least four interlocking reasons. First, as preliminary work by Ian Kingsbury and I indicates, our fields’ intellectuals do not define accountability in the same manner as the public at large. For the public, accountability means potential termination. In contrast, leading public administration and education journals define accountability as following administrative processes: Well under a tenth of academic references mention possible termination, and nearly all of those address electoral accountability (as may befall Mr. Trump). Similarly, in our analysis of school superintendent contracts, Julie Trivitt, Malachi Nichols, Angela Watson, and I find that it may be difficult to hold school superintendents accountable for academic performance because their contracts seldom mention student learning, and almost never include even long term achievement or attainment goals. Quite literally, most school superintendents have no contractual obligation to improve education. In the school choice debate, both sides are right: School reformers and backers of traditional public schools are talking past each other.
Second, complex bureaucracies are nontransparent, in part to evade accountability. As an elected school board member, I have found that despite various laws “requiring” transparency, (almost) nothing important that happens in a public school system makes the papers. Reporters simply do not know what questions to ask, and we in school systems will not tell them: doing so might be seen as disloyal to our public schools. As a long-time member of a charter board, I must acknowledge that the charter sector is similarly nontransparent to outsiders. While charters are usually smaller and thus easier for reporters and auditors to monitor for wrongdoing, they also attract less attention. It is not clear which sector is more transparent, something which clearly merits systematic study.
Third is the question of accountable to whom. Fieldwork suggests that public bureaucracies excel at serving the politically connected, or as a teacher told me a few years back, school board members’ children automatically get better teachers. Just as heroes in stories have “plot armor,” my teenage daughter refers to her unsought “school board armor.” In well-run school districts like mine, such impacts are limited. Even so, any bureaucracy is accountable to some, but this is very different from being accountable to all. Interestingly, these inequities are essentially unstudied by educational researchers.
Fourth, accountability requires in some way rewarding or punishing officials for their performance. Yet just as tenure may protect ineffective teachers and administrators, obscure election times and a lack of party cues may protect school board members from electoral accountability. My own election to school board had double the usual voter turnout—6%—again suggesting the matter of accountability to whom. Greater levels of political tribalism present even greater barriers to accountability. Reflecting postmodernism (and posttruth), extreme partisanship kept Democratic party identifiers from recognizing the economic success of the early and middle Bush years, and kept Republican party identifiers from acknowledging the robust economic growth of the final Obama years. Similarly, there is little evidence that either Donald Trump’s poor business record or Hillary Rodham Clinton’s poor policy record at the U.S. State Department affected voter evaluations of the candidates.
If voters fail to hold leaders accountable for relatively objective, high attention national conditions like unemployment rates, they will not hold officials accountable for far hazier matters like schooling. Instead, they may support those of the same social or political group, no matter the educational outcomes. The market paradigm proposes that choice enables parents, those with the most skin in the game, to hold officials accountable for how their own children fare, something about which nearly all parents care and about which they have considerable information. As Somin argues, clear and present self-interest and direct knowledge of how schooling affects their children may enable parents to overcome the tribal loyalties exploited by politicians. Much school choice research should examine the degree to which this occurs; that is, the degree to which messy, imperfect markets or messy, imperfect political processes serve the long-term interests of children.
With the demise of No Child Left Behind, we may see the two-decade old “accountability” regime fade. What comes next? Perhaps we should replace accountability regimes with effectiveness regimes, while acknowledging the complexities that effective for one child may be ineffective for others, requiring many options. Because schooling effectiveness is a very individualized matter, perhaps parents can gauge it better than distant “experts” with less local knowledge and no skin in the game. This makes sense if the child is not the mere creature of the state.
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