What happens when we can’t give people choice?

(Guest Post by Mike McShane)

Over the weekend, Washington Post education writer Jay Matthews posed a great question on his Class Struggle blog.  He asks, in not so many words: why do education reformers fight so hard for test-based accountability systems that the charter schools they also support do not use?  If these systems are so great, the argument goes, why don’t charter schools use them?

The best way I can think to respond is to put it in terms of college football.

As a diehard Notre Dame fan I cheer for two teams every weekend, the Fighting Irish and whoever is playing Michigan.  I share the same view as an education reformer who most directly supports school choice as the means for reforming the system.  I like charters, vouchers, tuition tax credits and anything that works to dislodge the entrenched interests that prevent leaders from giving people choice.

As I have written elsewhere, the American education system has seen decades of middling performance at ever increasing cost because of the reform-resisting iron triangle formed between teachers unions, the state and local bureaucrats charged with their oversight, and the elected officials that are supposed to represent the interests of the community.  To meaningfully reform the system, we need to disrupt this power structure.

To borrow from Paul Manna’s insightful 2006 book School’s in: Federalism and the National Education Agenda, if you want to upset the power of an interest group, you can either decrease its license or its capacity.  A group’s license is its argument for action.   A group’s capacity is its ability to act.

Teachers have traditionally enjoyed substantial license.  In fact, in the recent Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup Poll, 71% of Americans had “trust and confidence in the men and women who are teaching children in the public schools”.

Why are teachers so popular?  There are many reasons, but it doesn’t hurt that when evaluated under current systems 99% of them are rated as satisfactory.  Informally, parents might have an understanding of whose classroom they would like their child in, but they lack any kind of systematic performance evidence to make their case.

When teachers are more accurately evaluated and parents are made aware that their children will be assigned to that school or classroom regardless of their wishes, it should encourage them, and the greater public, to demand more options for students.    To put a finer point on it, more accurate evaluation decreases the iron triangle’s license.  Does it decrease license as well as choice does?  Not at all.  Does the iron triangle have ample opportunity to water-down or co-opt it?  Absolutely.  But it is a step in the right direction.

Look, I’m no great fan of the one-size fits all accountability systems that many urban school reformers are implementing, but I’m not a fan of Ohio State either.  However, on that Saturday in November when the Buckeyes take on the Wolverines in the Horseshoe, you can believe that I’ll answer “–IO” to anyone that starts “OH-“, because cheering for the Buckeyes (like supporting evaluation systems) is better than the alternative.

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4 Responses to What happens when we can’t give people choice?

  1. The way I like to reconcile my support for choice with my less enthusiastic support for some accountability measures in public schools (that would not apply to choice schools) is this: Firms that compete in a market have to develop internal procedures and policies for ensuring the productivity of their own staff and resources. We can think of the traditional public school system as one firm and accountability measures as the way that firm tries to manage its own productivity.

    Charter schools and private schools are separate firms and can develop their own internal accountability measures. Coke has procedures for measuring and motivating the productivity of their own sales force but Pepsi does not have to adopt those same procedures.

    And to anticipate the inevitable argument that it is the public’s money, so everyone has to be accountable in the same way to the public — most public expenditures do not demand this form of strict accountability to public authorities. Social security uses public funds to prevent hunger and homelessness among seniors, but no one demands that seniors prove to public authorities that the funds are being used for desirable purposes. Public support for education is similarly just money we provide to help families educate their children. We can trust that they will do this because it is in their own interest just as we trust seniors to avoid homelessness and hunger.

  2. Michael Van Beek says:

    But what if the one-size fits all accountability system was run by Rich Rodriguez?

  3. John Conlin says:

    The solution (and the problem) is the system. The K-12 public education system is a failing system. Funding and personnel are not the problem.

    Why don’t we see these same issues in any other industry? There are parent trigger laws for schools but no restaurant trigger laws. The market for smart phones is incredible and there is no small group of people who must direct its development.

    The only solution is to change the system. If we simply allowed parents to determine where the money is being spent we could instantly create a state-based market for K-12 education.

    That’s what one schmoe from fly over country is trying to do. That’s what my temporary non-profit End the Education Plantation, Inc. is all about. http://www.EndtheEducationPlantation.org

    Give it a look.

  4. Mack Hall says:

    Yes, yes, but none of you voted in your last school board election.

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