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Accountability Opinion

The Power of School Choice Depends on Accountability

By Emily Van Dunk & Anneliese Dickman — January 21, 2004 6 min read
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None of the factors necessary for parent-driven accountability are present in the nation's largest and longest-running voucher program. But there is hope.

Nowhere in the nation is there a better test of the possible effects of market forces in education than in Milwaukee, home of the nation’s largest and longest-running school voucher program. More than 13,000 students use vouchers worth $6,020 to attend 106 private schools. The total number of voucher recipients is more than three times the size of the average public school district in the country.

The great challenge, in Milwaukee and elsewhere, is for school choice to demonstrate that these reforms truly work. What impact has school choice had on the educational performance of participating students, the public school system that now competes for students, and the private schools that accept public voucher money? Does competition provide parents and children with real alternatives, or have parents and the public been deceived and put their hopes and their tax dollars into educational programs that are performing no better than the underachieving public schools from which many of these children came?

During seven years of research, we have learned that those hoping to find answers to these questions by looking at Milwaukee will instead find that competitive effects from vouchers have been muted by design. Ironically, at a time when great emphasis is being placed on accountability and achievement, there is an accountability void in Wisconsin when it comes to private voucher schools.

Milwaukee’s voucher program is based on the premise that parents’ actions will cause good schools to succeed and poor schools to fail. The success of school choice is thus dependent on two factors: informed parents, and schools that are competing to keep students and their dollars. We find little evidence that either of these exists in Milwaukee.

Milwaukee's voucher program is based on the premise that parents' actions will cause good schools to succeed and poor schools to fail.

There is no question that there are good private voucher schools here, just as there are good public schools. Unfortunately, however, no accountability data exist to prove this, much less to prove that these schools’ high performance was spurred by competition. To fill this void, we have systematically gathered original data on school choice by surveying parents, interviewing administrators, visiting schools, and analyzing state financial data. In addition, we annually collect school-level data for each voucher school on factors including curricula, student demographics, enrollment, and others.

We have found that, overall, parental knowledge of specific schools tends to be low, and that parents face considerable barriers in their efforts to obtain information about schools. Thus parents are unable, by themselves, to hold schools fully accountable.

We also have sorted through enrollment information for each of the 124 voucher schools that have participated in the program and found that accountability cannot be derived from the twin market forces of supply and demand. Furthermore, public schools do not seem to be improving their performance as a result of these market forces. In fact, student performance as measured by achievement on state standardized tests has not improved with increased competition from nearby voucher schools.

Finally, we dissected the complex public funding formula for education in Wisconsin in an attempt to understand the relationship between gaining or losing students because of choice, and the financial impact such change has on school funding. In the end, it appears school choice in Wisconsin was designed to insulate public schools from losing tax dollars, should they lose students to the competition.

So, in sum, none of the factors necessary for parent-driven accountability are present in the nation’s largest and longest- running voucher program. But there is hope. Certain steps can be taken to strengthen accountability and repair the voucher program so that it can improve education.

We have found that, overall, parental knowledge of specific schools tends to be low, and that parents face considerable barriers in their efforts to obtain information about schools.

We suggest the following three guidelines, which do not overly restrict the operation of the private, independent schools participating in the school choice program, yet still ensure that taxpayer money is used wisely and that parents are truly empowered:

With accurate knowledge about educational options, parents can make decisions that best fit the needs of their children. Therefore, our first suggestion is to make the following information public for all participating schools: the school’s mission and philosophy, curriculum, governing structure, graduation rate, budget and expenditures, methods of teaching, number of students suspended and expelled annually, qualifications of teachers and administrators, scores on standardized tests (if taken), and student-attendance rate.

This information should not only be available, but easily accessible; and it should be accurate and credible.

Our second guideline is the creation of a public-private entity consisting of representatives of private and public schools to gather and disseminate information from voucher schools. By requiring schools to report information, and by distributing it through a public-private agency, the cost to parents of information-acquisition is significantly lowered, plus parents are truly empowered.

Unfortunately, some schools may not be interested in or may not be able to share such information. In the interests of parents and taxpayers alike, we recommend a final guideline: Private choice schools that do not provide accurate information should be granted a one-year probationary period to allow them to meet the requirement. Failure to comply after one year should result in loss of taxpayer funds. Immediate penalties for noncompliance with reporting requirements are not as helpful to start-up voucher schools or even to parents, who may be willing to try out something new and as yet unproven.

If publicly funded private school vouchers were meant only to provide low-income parents with more choices for their children, then the case we make regarding competition and accountability would be of little concern. However, if choice is about improving education by empowering parents to select a school based on their child’s needs rather than on the location of their home, then the evidence we provide makes that case. School choice will not improve education unless some structured accountability is included in choice policies.

Parental choices alone cannot ensure that we do not replace faltering public schools where no choice is available with faltering private schools that are chosen.

Vouchers will not lead to the improvements desired by their proponents unless voucher schools and public schools are able to clearly understand the implications of gaining or losing students; parents are able to have reliable, accurate information to support their schooling choices; and schools are financially rewarded or penalized for gaining or losing students.

Through their vouchers, parents, not elected officials or bureaucrats, will decide the fate of schools. High- performing schools will succeed by capturing enough of the market to remain open. Poorly performing schools will close.

After seven years of research on school choice in Milwaukee, we have found that this cannot happen without adequate accountability. Parental choices alone cannot ensure that we do not replace faltering public schools where no choice is available with faltering private schools that are chosen.

Emily Van Dunk and Anneliese Dickman are the authors of School Choice and the Question of Accountability: The Milwaukee Experience, published this week by Yale University Press. Ms. Van Dunk is the research director, and Ms. Dickman a senior researcher, at the nonpartisan Public Policy Forum in Milwaukee.

A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2004 edition of Education Week as The Power of School ChoiceDepends on Accountability

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