Purists vs. hawks in the charter debate

Ohio’s charter school community has been split into two
camps since the inception of the state’s first charter law in 1997. The first
camp – I’ll call free-market purists – believes that charter schools should be afforded
the same rights as private schools and as such be given maximum freedom of
operations. The free-market purists argue that when it comes to charter schools
the role of the state is little more than to distribute public dollars for a
child’s education. As long as parents decide to send children to a school, no
more “accountability” is necessary for performance.

In short, if there is market demand for a school – and the
school is in compliance with basic regulations like fire and health and safety
codes – then no more evidence is needed to keep the state dollars flowing.
Free-market purists believe that school choice is an end in itself. If public
policy creates a marketplace of school options then issues of school quality
will work themselves out as parents will naturally seek quality and abandon
failure. Free-market purists believe school operators know best what families
and children need and that the state should have no say in matters of school “quality”
and academic performance.

The second camp of school-choice supporters – I’ll call
accountability hawks – believes that market demand for schools is important (no
child should be trapped in a failing, monopolistic school system), but of equal
importance is holding schools that receive taxpayer dollars accountable for
their academic and fiscal performance. Accountability hawks – of which I am one
– believe that the state has an inherent interest in ensuring that all children
receive a quality education because the taxpayers footing the bill deserve
outcomes for their investments. More importantly, citizens need to know that
future generations are provided with the knowledge and skills needed to
perpetuate a good and just society.

Accountability hawks take inspiration from the writings of
Alexander Hamilton, et al. who wrote in Federalist No. 51 that:

Ambition must be made to counteract
ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional
rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices
should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government
itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were
angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither
external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a
government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty
lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and
in the next place oblige it to control itself.
For public education to work, as in a republic itself, there
needs to be a system of checks and balances in place.

For public education to work, as in a republic itself, there
needs to be a system of checks and balances in place. Everyone in public
education benefits from transparency and accountability, from having someone
watching over their shoulder, giving them feedback on performance, and holding
them to account for progress. Rewards can take many forms (promotions,
accolades, bonuses, diplomas, etc.) and so can interventions (replace the
principal, require summer school, put the school on probation, etc.). But, accountability
hawks believe nobody is better off when information is concealed, when
self-interest trumps performance, or when ill-considered financial incentives
tempt one to tolerate and even expand academic mediocrity.

With proper checks and balances in place between school
operators, school governance structures (boards of education and charter
authorizers), and the state, school choice is more apt to deliver performance
and avoid scandal than if schools are simply left alone to operate free of
external demands beyond market forces. We’ve seen these two views clash publicly
in recent months in Ohio. In the debate
around the state’s most recent biennial budget the Republican-controlled House
sought to reshape Ohio’s charter school program around the “free-market purist”
position while the Republican-controlled Senate pursued policies better-aligned
to the position of “accountability hawks.”

More recently, the Ohio Department of Education (which was
required to become a charter school authorizer as part of a compromise in the
biennial budget debate between the House and Senate) rejected
charter applications from the Akron-based for-profit charter operator White
Hat. White Hat management sought an arrangement as school operator that would
have given the company carte blanche control over all school operations and
state dollars received. The department’s arguments for rejecting the White Hat
applications were very much aligned with the principles of “accountability
hawks.” Specifically, school operators, the department argued, must be
answerable to non-profit governing boards that provide a check on school
spending and school performance issues.

Taking a phrase from Hamilton, if all charter operators were
angels we wouldn’t need charter school accountability beyond market forces (and
likewise in the district sector of public education). But, history has taught
us that not all charter operators are angelic in their motives and pursuits. As
such we need accountable hawks to keep charter schools honest and focused on
serving the needs of children and taxpayers first.

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