Taking the Public out of Public Schools

One of the arguments regularly trotted out against school choice is that public schools, whatever their academic defects, are at least accountable to the public in what they teach and how they operate.  And while private schools may be accountable to the parents of students who attend, they are not broadly accountable to the public in what they teach and how they operate.  Vouchers are bad, the argument goes, because public money goes to schools that are not really accountable to the public.

In light of yesterday’s post on wide-spread non-compliance by Georgia public schools with the state’s social promotion law, people who like to make this argument might want to reconsider. 

In general, I am struck by how little public accountability there can be in public schools.  As mentioned yesterday and in past postings on this blog, getting public schools to implement policies that the public adopts, through their elected representatives, is an enormous challenge.  If public school officials or educators prefer not to implement a policy they have remarkable latitude not to do it or to do it in a way that severely undermines or negates the purpose of the policy. 

Monitoring what schools actually do is extremely difficult because what happens in schools and classrooms behind closed doors is rarely seen by anyone other than the staff and students.  And even when non-compliance is observed, imposing sanctions is next to impossible.  I’ll wager that no teacher, principal, or superintendent in Georgia will lose his or her job or suffer in any other way for disobeying the law that they retain certain students.

Even in the age of NCLB, with wide-spread testing, obtaining meaningful school data can be a nightmare.  If researchers want to assess school policies or approaches they need access to individual student test and demographic data stripped of identifying information.  Requests for individual student data (with no identifying information) are regularly rejected on the false grounds that student privacy prevents releasing those data.  If there is no identifying information, then there is no threat to student privacy.  States and districts should post identity-stripped individual student data on the web for anyone to analyze.  Instead, they require proposals, inquire about purposes, assess whether the research could be embarrassing, drag their feet, and regularly turn those proposals down.

I was once even refused aggregate data for schools in a district in Massachusetts.  They claimed that they would only release the average test scores for schools if I could prove that I was a resident of their district.  What if I wanted to move there?  Too bad.

On another occasion a school official in Arizona refused to provide information on how many student were enrolled in each grade broken out by race and ethnicity.  I just wanted a count of students.  When asked why he wouldn’t provide the data, the official said that it sounded like we were trying to estimate graduation rates and he wouldn’t help us do that because we might report grad rates that were different from those reported by the state.  He actually said that out loud.

If the public isn’t allowed to know information as basic as how many students are enrolled in school, how public are those schools really?  The Arizona official acted as if they were his schools, not public schools because he could decide whether to share information based on whether it would be flattering to him or not.  Really, it should be none of his business why I want public information.  They’re my schools, too.

4 Responses to Taking the Public out of Public Schools

  1. CM'Blog says:

    Hi. For once, I feel someone has finally said it right. Public Schooling is a joke. Anyway, I’m looking to build up incoming links for my blog. Would you like to exchange blogroll links with me? If yes, please visit: http://greatdebater.wordpress.com/2008/06/25/why-i-blog/ and leave your URL there. The purpose of my blog is to generate debate on anything and everything that matters.

  2. illusionsformoney says:

    I’ve always been against vouchers and I think the idea of losing accountability is only one part of the issue. Just because you can’t obtain the data doesn’t mean you can’t hold the schools accountable. It also was probably easier to get some of this information before NCLB, mainly guessing there, but there wasn’t as big a stigma on certain data before NCLB. It just was what it was, even if it was scarring.

    Just to the above commenter, Public schooling is not a joke. Such a broad statement. There is just a serious dilemma on how good public schooling can be more widespread. A lot of times the issues don’t lie with schools alone.

  3. Greg Forster says:

    Vouchers make schools more accountable, not less. The most effective accountability is to be able to leave a school that isn’t serving you and find a school that will. Without vouchers, there’s not much you can do to fight the system.

    As for data being less available after NCLB, that’s exactly the reverse of the truth. NCLB requires states to make a huge amount of data available that they didn’t even have to collect before, much less make it available. You can’t fight them to get your hands on data that they don’t even collect! And the system was always hostile to releasing information – all bureaucracies are. What you’re really proposing here is a policy of appeasement: stop antagonizing the bureaucracy by reuqiring it to perform its job, and maybe in return it will begrudgingly agree to give us some of the information that it’s legally required to release (under FOIA laws if nothing else).

  4. […] 15, 2008 · No Comments Economist Jay P. Greene notes that public schools tend to offer less disclosure and transparency than private ones (though […]

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