Experts Divided on Best Approach for Voucher School Accountability

Published June 1, 2009

With the opinions of several school choice experts in hand, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has proposed a sliding scale for holding accountable private schools that enroll students receiving publicly funded vouchers.

“For too long, school choice supporters have been stuck in a tired internal debate that hobbles the advance of vouchers,” write the authors of “When Private Schools Take Public Dollars: What’s the Place of Accountability in School Voucher Programs?” The paper from the pro-school-choice think tank, released in late March, describes the debate as being between those who think market forces ensure quality and those who believe schools accepting vouchers should face the same accountability requirements as public schools.

So far, the authors suggest, the market advocates have been winning, with choice supporters falling out of touch with “a society preoccupied with student achievement, school performance, results-based accountability, international competitiveness and institutional transparency.”

Balancing Interests

For opinions on the best way to balance public accountability with private schools’ greatest strength—the ability to operate independently and adapt quickly to students’ needs and abilities—Fordham sent questionnaires to 20 well-known choice experts, including former Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Howard Fuller; Andrew Rotherham, cofounder of the think tank Education Sector; and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), who championed the Sunshine State’s choice programs.

Fordham’s questions fell under four general headings: measuring academic performance; accreditation, finances, and teachers; religion, admissions, and expulsions; and eligibility for school participation.

The report said the experts generally agreed voucher-accepting private schools should be left largely unregulated regarding day-to-day operations.

More contentious, however, were questions about testing and finances. While respondents agreed parents should have access to schools’ test scores and financial information, and that there should be evaluation of voucher programs “based on the test scores of voucher students,” consensus disintegrated afterward. Respondents disagreed over whether only voucher students or all students in voucher-receiving schools should be tested, whether state tests or ones chosen by schools should be used, and what financial reporting should be required.

Enforcing Standards

There was also significant disagreement over what circumstances would justify dropping a school from a voucher program. Two respondents sided with pure market forces, relying on parents removing their children from bad schools. Others differed on the degree to which financial, academic, or regulatory problems should factor into government officials eliminating schools.

After reviewing the experts’ responses, the authors propose a “sliding scale” of accountability based on private schools’ voucher enrollment.

“Schools that continue to draw the majority of their revenues from private sources should be treated more like other private schools, while those that depend more heavily on pubic dollars should be treated more like public schools,” they concluded.

Illustrating Options

To illustrate its scale, the report examines a few hypothetical schools.

On one end, a school with less than 1 percent of its pupils receiving vouchers would be required to undergo annual audits, with results released to parents; test voucher students for program-evaluation (as opposed to school-evaluation) purposes; and show parents their children’s test results.

On the other end, a school where 90 percent of pupils receive vouchers would have to undergo annual audits and release results to parents and the public; give both voucher and non-voucher students state assessments; and show parents their own children’s test results and the public schools’ results.

Schools could be removed from the program for failing to reach test performance benchmarks or for financial problems.

Lingering Disagreement

John Merrifield, an economist at the University of Texas–San Antonio, said the sliding scale would overrule consumer choice while ignoring the politically driven failures of government accountability.

“The considerable dangers embedded in the Fordham proposal come down to the meaning of political accountability,” Merrifield said. “The proportionality issue is a sideshow. Special interests will capture the process.”

Neal McCluskey ([email protected]) is associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

For more information …

“When Private Schools Take Public Dollars: What’s the Place of Accountability in School Voucher Programs?” by Chester E. Finn et al., Thomas B. Fordham Institute, March 24, 2009: