School choice accountability debate: The same thing over and over

In the 1993 movie Groundhog
Bill Murray’s lead character finds himself reliving the same day in
Punxsutawney, PA, over and over again. He despairs and ultimately tries to kill
himself over and over again, but after discovering the futility of his effort
starts to reexamine his life and priorities.

This is a fitting analogy for the school choice debate in
Ohio. Every other year at budget time, lawmakers debate school choice and
money. Republicans and their supporters argue for increasing choice, while
Democrats and their supporters argue for more rules to constrict choice. This
year is no different, but as Republicans took control over the House and the
governor’s office earlier this year (they’ve controlled the Senate since 1985)
it is their turn to go on the offensive. Over the previous four year’s Governor
Strickland and his allies in the Democratic-controlled House tried to defund
choice programs and/or bury them with new regulations.

Since February, Republicans have proposed three bills
(including the state budget bill) calling for the expansion of both charter
schools and voucher. The most expansive proposal (House Bill 136) would make 85
percent of Ohio’s students eligible for scholarships to attend private school. The
Cincinnati Enquirer captured the feelings of the
current debate when it reported the following exchange:

It’s high time, said Rep. Matt
Huffman, the Lima Republican who introduced the bill. Ohio should focus
education funding on what individual parents and students want, instead of on
what public school officials and teachers say they want, he said.

“This is…about parents and children
first and taxpayers second,” he said.

“This is giving away an enormous
amount of money,” said state Sen. Tom Sawyer, D-Akron. “There is no oversight
in this at all. It’s one of the grave shortcomings in this proposal. But,
anytime you’re giving away money, it becomes very popular.”

And, as in previous years, my colleagues and I at the Thomas
B. Fordham Institute have entered the fray somewhere in the middle, advocating
for a balance between expanding choice and holding all schools accountability
for their academic performance. School choice and results-based accountability
need to go hand in glove. At least 35 percent of children in the “Ohio 8”
cities attend a school other than their district operated neighborhood school.
Further, many other Ohio families exercise choice via the real estate market –
that is, they buy or rent in a particular neighborhood because of its schools – we are looking at a majority of young Ohioans.

As choice mechanisms proliferate (now including virtual
schooling, home schooling, and vouchers along with charters, magnets, and sundry
intra- and inter-district options), communities and parents are beginning to
understand that educating children is not just something bureaucratic systems
do. It’s something that parents select and shape for their daughters and sons –
and can change and reshape when needed – much as they select clothes, food,
churches, activities, and vacation destinations. But because society also has
an interest in the education of its next generation, public policy must set
standards, assessments, and accountability mechanisms by which to ensure that
educational outcomes are satisfactory, whatever school or mode of schooling a
family may elect.

With more than a decade of experience to build on in Ohio,
we know the education marketplace left to its own device does not work to the
benefit of all children and families. It is supposed to result in parents
selecting high-performing schools for their children while shunning low
performers. In time, it should lead to either the improvement or closure of
weak schools as the good ones gain market share. But in practice, really
atrocious schools can languish for years when nobody intervenes. Too many
families, particularly in troubled communities simply aren’t – or don’t know
how to be – very picky when it comes to choosing schools. They are wont to
settle for such (admittedly important) basics as safety, convenience and
friendliness and not pay much attention to math scores, graduation rates, and
college-going data.

children's education is paid for with public dollars, no matter what
sort of school these children attend, the public has the right, even the
obligation, to know how well those children are learning.... 

This is why the Fordham Institute supports legislative efforts
to more effectively rate the performance of all schools. As voucher programs
expand, the academic performance of the children in these programs should be
tracked and reported publicly using the state’s value-added progress measure.
This will allow for the documentation of student progress and help determine
whether or not the programs receiving state support add value to children and
taxpayers over time.

When children’s education is paid for with public dollars,
no matter what sort of school those children attend, the public has the right,
even the obligation, to know how well those children are learning the skills
and knowledge that they will need to succeed in further education and in life.
Schools that take public dollars to educate children but that cannot demonstrate
their educational efficacy in transparent ways should be put on notice. If they
can’t fix themselves in a reasonable period of time, this situation must be
addressed for the good of the children.

Like the Groundhog Day
experience of Bill Murray’s character, the debate around school choice in
Ohio seems to repeat itself over and over. Yet, unlike in the movie, Ohio still
struggles to learn from the experience. After more than a decade of school
choice debates in Ohio, it is obvious that choice alone is no panacea for what
ails education. Yet, in tandem with a rigorous accountability system that
faithfully tracks and reports student achievement over time school choice
offers the best hope for expanding quality education for all of the state’s children.