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Curmudgucation: Accountability Whiplash

It's one of the little inconsistencies in the reformster movement. 

Some will point at charts showing that spending on public education has increased steadily (in constant dollars) and ask, "What have we gotten for it?" 

There are answers to that question, including but not limited to A) more education for special ed students previously warehoused in some back room, B) better funding for previously marginalized students and C) more administrators, in part, to deal with increased gummint paperwork. The other part of the answer is that any taxpayer can demand a peek at the school district budget; you can find out where those dollars have gone. 

I've only ever had one beef with accountability hawks. I believe taxpayers are absolutely entitled to accountability by their local school district. My argument is with the instruments used to assess what districts are doing (spoiler alert: the Big Standardized Test is a spectacularly bad accountability instrument). 

But the real whiplash begins when some accountability hawks then stump for school choice and vouchers. "We are not getting enough accountability from our public schools, despite all the rules that require transparency from them," they say. "So instead, let's give the taxpayer money to schools that have no accountability requirements at all."

In fact, many of the voucher bills being floated around the country specifically stipulate that the state will in no way interfere with the operation of the private schools receiving voucher money, which is another way of saying "We will not hold these schools accountable in any way, shape or form." 

I understand accountability hawks. I understand choicers. What I don't understand are the reformsters who live where the Venn Diagram overlaps-- "We are upset about the lack of accountability in how public schools spend tax dollars, so we would like to see those tax dollars pumped into a system that offers no taxpayer accountability at all." 

We have now had ample opportunity to see how accountability plays out under super-choice systems. Arkansas spends $3.3 million on a voucher program with little-to-no oversight. There's the story from Arizona about the $700,000 of voucher money spent on beauty supplies and clothes. And there are stories we don't even know yet because nobody is tracking what happens to those taxpayer dollars. 

"Parents!" is the standard response, the idea that parents, acting as the invisible hand of the marketplace, will provide all the accountability. But we know that doesn't work. We know that the last time vouchers were used on a large scale, it was by white parents trying to get their children out of newly-segregated public schools. No less a choice fan than David Osborne said at a recent Bellwether webinar (I'll post a link when it gets posted) that the research tells us that parents do not close bad schools. Nor would I expect them to--a private/charter school doesn't have to make everybody happy, doesn't need to hold onto all customers, and in fact can function better if it chases away everyone who's not a "good fit." I will bet dollars to donuts that Eva Moskowitz has never changed one letter of Success Academy policy because some parents had threatened to walk, nor are the many anti-LGBTQ private schools collecting taxpayer money going to loosen their policies because some parents will walk with their feet. 

The other problem with parent-based accountability is that there are plenty of taxpayers who are not parents of school age children. In a parent-based accountability system, those taxpayers get no say. Nobody has to be accountable to them. They get no say, even though they will have to live and work with the results of that system.

Accountability whiplash can be explained in part by faux accountability hawks, reformsters who don't really give a rat's tuchus about accountability other than it's another tool for discrediting public schools.

But what remains is a mystery--reformsters declaring "We don't think the public school system has enough accountability, so we would like to replace it with a system that has even less." 

"Liberty!" is the other call. As long as enough parents want an all-white academy that teaches the earth is a 4,000 year old plate and the Civil War had nothing todo with slavery and vaccines are a dangerous Big Pharma hoax, then they should get to have that school AND the taxpayers should foot the bill. 

But as we have been dramatically demonstrating for the past few years, our country and its taxpayers have a vested interest in a citizenry that doesn't believe dumb things. Yes, we will have to have constant arguments about what belongs on the list of dumb things, but there is no benefit to the country or its taxpayers in a system that lets everyone avoid ever having their beliefs challenged. Yes, finding your way to understanding through diverse and multifaceted aspects is complicated, but there is no virtue in answers that are simple and wrong. 

You can't have it both ways. Either taxpayers deserve to have accountability for how their tax dollars are spent, or parents deserve to freely spend taxpayer dollars without accountability or oversight. 

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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation. ...