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Voucher Study Finds Support for Accountability

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Most taxpayers in Ohio and Wisconsin support and favor expanding voucher programs in their states that involve private schools, but believe those schools should be held accountable to the public, a new report concludes.

Parents, educators, and taxpayers surveyed by the Public Policy Forum in Milwaukee cited a range of guidelines, from reporting test scores and teacher qualifications to oversight by an independent board, they believe are necessary to oversee choice programs involving private schools.

For More Information

Copies of the report, "Choice School Accountability," are available for $15 each from the Public Policy Forum, 633 W. Wisconsin Ave., Suite 406, Milwaukee, WI 53203-1918; (414) 276-8240.

Because much of the choice debate has focused on the question of whether vouchers for private schools should be allowed at all, less attention has been paid to accountability issues for the programs that exist, the report from the nonprofit research organization suggests.

Milwaukee and Cleveland are the only U.S. school districts where state funds are given to low-income parents in the form of vouchers to pay for or defray tuition at private schools.

In an effort to fill the research void, the study's authors asked parents, educators, and taxpayers how they thought private schools should be held accountable in return for receiving public dollars.

"Regardless of whether they support choice or not, this study shows there are still things people need and want to know about schools," said Emily Van Dunk, the nonprofit group's research coordinator. "Right now, those [private] schools aren't required to provide all that information."

Calls for Accountability

The study released last week was based on interviews with 295 people--predominantly parents and educators--from private choice and public schools in Cleveland and Milwaukee and a telephone survey of 771 Ohio and Wisconsin taxpayers. The group's work follows an earlier survey that mapped out information parents want when selecting a school. ("Curriculum Beats Scores, Survey Finds," Nov. 12, 1997.)

The choice programs in the two cities together serve more than 4,500 poor students, providing scholarships and vouchers that pay at least some of the cost of tuition at 79 private schools. Cleveland's program includes religious schools, though a challenge to that aspect of the program is before the Ohio Supreme Court.

The survey responses enabled the researchers to identify broad accountability guidelines that appear to have solid support from school choice proponents and critics alike, Ms. Van Dunk said.

The authors conclude that there is strong public support for making available certain information about private schools that receive public funds. And that support cuts across the lines of race, socioeconomics, and opinions on private school choice, according to the report.

Of those polled, for example, 85 percent thought private choice schools should be required to report teacher and administrator qualifications, and 78 percent thought schools should have to report financial information.

Though the guidelines are intended primarily for policymakers grappling with accountability in private-school-choice programs, they are relevant for public schools too, Ms. Van Dunk said.

Among the guidelines identified in the study are that:

  • Choice schools should be required to make public information on their missions, philosophies, governing structures, curricula and teaching methods, teacher and administrator qualifications, finances, aggregate test scores, and attendance, graduation, expulsion, and suspension rates.
  • A public board made up of private and public school representatives should be created to gather and make public the information about participating schools.
  • Schools should be given a year to meet the reporting requirements. If they fail to comply, taxpayer money should be revoked.

Beyond Market Forces

The report highlights the tension between the need for accountability when private institutions receive public dollars and the desire to avoid burdening such schools with rules and regulations.

Some choice proponents fear that accountability standards will lead to state intrusion into private schools.

The proposed guidelines sound "intentionally burdensome, input-oriented, and have little or no regard for success among students," said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based group that advocates school choice.

"Accountability is results," she added. "Is a child being educated? That's the question they should be asking."

While the report said some choice proponents argue that parent satisfaction is accountability enough--in that good schools will succeed and poor ones fail--the study suggests that most people want more.

"The rhetoric of letting the market decide is not a part of their vocabulary," Ms. Van Dunk said of those surveyed. "Even parents who are 100 percent supportive of choice say, no, that's not enough."

Most taxpayers surveyed favored expanding private school choice by extending the programs statewide (76 percent), allowing religious schools to participate (83 percent), and allowing all children to participate, not just poor children (53 percent).

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