Accountability Model Proposed for Voucher Schools

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Aiming to "restart" the dialogue on accountability for publicly funded voucher programs, a Washington think tank argues in a new report that voucher proponents need to "wake up—and catch up to the educational demands and expectations of the 21st Century."

The report—being released March 24 by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which long has backed private school vouchers—suggests a sliding-scale approach. The idea is that the more voucher students a particular religious or secular private school enrolled, the greater would be its obligation for both public transparency and accountability.

"We think the time has come for the school voucher movement to come to terms with the idea of accountability for participating schools," Michael J. Petrilli, the vice president for national programs and policy at the Fordham Institute, said in an interview.

At the same time, he emphasized that the issue is especially thorny. "If you push too hard on accountability and transparency, there’s a very real risk that few private schools will participate in these programs," Mr. Petrilli said.

Experts Surveyed

About a dozen, tailored voucher programs currently operate across the country, from the $14 million federal program for low-income students in the District of Columbia to a $10 million Louisiana program launched last year for low-income New Orleanians.

The report notes that of all the arguments that critics of voucher programs advance, the one that may carry the most weight with the public is whether the schools are held publicly accountable, especially in light of the vast increase in demands now imposed on public schools to demonstrate their performance by the federal government and states.

Fordham consulted 20 experts who are generally supportive of school choice in producing the paper, and outlined their stances on some key issues.

The majority of experts surveyed agreed that participating private schools should not face new government regulations regarding their day-to-day operations, the report said. The survey also found common ground regarding parental information and program evaluation.

"Everyone sees the value of helping parents make informed choices by providing them with data about how well their children are performing," the report says.

The experts generally agreed that voucher programs as a whole should be evaluated by third-party researchers. But consensus broke down on the issues of making schools’ academic results and information from financial audits public, the report said.

Sliding Scale

Ultimately, Fordham suggests a sliding-scale approach to how much accountability should be demanded of private schools participating in voucher programs, with the idea being that the requirements would gradually be ratcheted up relative to the amount of public funds a given school relies upon.

"Schools that draw the majority of their revenues from private sources should be treated more like other private schools, while those that depend primarily on public dollars should be treated more like public schools,” it says.

The Fordham Institute does not spell out any hard-and-fast details for precisely how a sliding scale would be designed, noting that policies could be structured in a "hundred different ways." But it outlines hypothetical examples.

For instance, the extent of standardized-testing requirements might vary—whether only voucher students must take them or all students—as well as who would have access to that information, including parents, program evaluators, or even the general public. Also, the foundation suggests that strict consequences for poor performance, such as removing a school from eligibility for the voucher program, might be limited to those schools that rely heavily on voucher aid.

"[T]his 'sliding scale’ model won't please everyone and likely won’t thrill anyone," the report says. "But no solution is going to be perfect. ..."

The think tank also emphasizes that the plan does not seek to ramp up regulation of "how schools conduct themselves," with the one caveat that participating private schools should adhere to published disciplinary protocols when expelling voucher students.

Vol. 28, Issue 27

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