Accountability for vouchers

On the idea of vouchers in the new world of accountability

The rise of testing-based accountability measures immeasurably complicates this argument for vouchers. Under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, public schools have to demonstrate their performance on certain standardized measures in order to receive funding. Race to the Top further centralizes educational affairs by encouraging states to adopt a nationwide core curriculum and by emphasizing a testing-driven component for teacher evaluations. The argument on behalf of such measures is that public dollars demand proof that they will be spent in a valuable way, and standardized testing is, apparently, the best way to establish this value. (Yes, this argument may be flawed in many, many ways, but let us leave that to the side for the moment as well.) If one wants to establish a centralized, federally-run public school system, No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top provide a sturdy foundation for that enterprise.

If, however, one wants to support a pluralist, voucher-driven kind education reform, this movement toward standards-based accountability could prove much more problematic. If the premise of this accountability is that public dollars require proof of effectiveness, what is the reason for demanding that a school run as a public institution (that is, a public school) should be held to any different standard than a school run as a private institution? Both would receive tax dollars from state and potentially local and federal governments: why should they be held to two different standards?
Once you've bought into the idea that standardized testing establishes a school's quality, it becomes harder to resist the idea that public money ought to go only to those private entities that have demonstrated their effectiveness in teaching. Moreover, these standards for accountability will, as both Louisiana and federal reforms demonstrate, tend to come from bureaucrats working in central government offices.

Under a universalized voucher program and homogenous standards system, the federal government, which would be the engine that de facto drives education policy under this "reformist" vision, would have increasing control over private schools. Why? Over a period of years, private schools would become increasingly dependent upon government tax dollars, and he who pays the piper picks the tune. Maybe not now, maybe not a few years from now, but eventually legislators and regulators could start placing further demands upon these newly dependent private schools. After all, if education is truly in a state of crisis, shouldn't government be demanding the best from schools in exchange for the taxpayer's hard-earned dollars?

In Ohio, much of this discussion has already begun to happen.

  • A 2009 newspaper report titled "Ohio voucher students must do better on tests "
  • But that doesn't mean these schools [voucher eecipients] — and their students — shouldn't be held accountable.

    That's needed more than ever after the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that voucher students performed poorly on state achievement tests.

    An analysis of about 2,900 students revealed that six in 10 did not pass math, science or social studies, four in 10 failed reading and three in 10 failed writing.

  • A 2010 article titled "Voucher students' test scores lag"
  • Several thousand Ohio students who used Education Choice scholarships to attend private schools are doing no better than students at the public schools they left behind, state test data show.

  • A 2011 report titled "Ohio Vouchers Fail to Raise Student Achievement"
  • The latest data from the Ohio Department of Education showed that students in the state’s voucher programs did not perform better academically than their peers in public schools. In fact, public school students outscored those in voucher schools in many cases.

  • And when voucher students were compared to the much maligned Cleveland Schools, this headline was produced "Cleveland students hold their own with voucher students on state tests"
  • The push is on to expand school voucher programs in Ohio, but new state data suggests that students who attend private schools with the help of taxpayer-funded vouchers don't necessarily fare better academically than the children they leave behind.

    Cleveland public school students often outperformed voucher students on 2009-10 state proficiency tests, according to data from the Ohio Department of Education.

As the article we opened with discusses, tax payers are unlikely to want to see their precious dollars fund private schools, in light of the overwhelming evidence that these private schools are producing results no better, and in many cases, a lot worse than their public school alternatives.

It would be reasonable to suggest that we ought to have accountability for private schools that receive tax dollars. If they cannot produce results as good as, or better, than their public school counterparts, they ought not to be able to continue to receive tax payer assistance.

If we are to continue to pursue a policy of choice, we have a duty to ensure those choices are of the highest possible quality available, and that goes for private schools too.