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.