What do voters consider most important when it comes to public education? According to a recent poll commissioned by the largest teachers union in my home state of Oklahoma, it’s not money. It’s “accountability.”
Now many Americans are under the impression that our public schools are in fact accountable. After all, schools are subject to a dizzying array of laws and regulations—on matters ranging from curriculum and testing to fire drills and administering epinephrine. (Researchers at the 1889 Institute pored over Oklahoma’s school administrative code and found roughly 640 mandates.)
But here’s the thing: “Bureaucratic compliance” is not synonymous with “accountability.” Far from it.
The dictionary definition of “accountable” is basically “answerable.” Webster gives this example: “held her accountable for the damage.”
“Holding people accountable requires that they face significant consequences as a result of their actions,” says University of Arkansas education professor Jay P. Greene.
“Despite years of ‘high stakes’ student testing, very few of the nation’s 3.14 million public-school teachers have ever lost a job, had their pay reduced or otherwise faced meaningful consequences because of these test results.”
Here in Oklahoma, the majority of students lack proficiency in math, science and English language arts. So how many schools have been closed? How many grown-ups have lost their jobs or had their pay reduced? Who’s being held accountable for the damage?
One former local superintendent once remarked that it’s heartbreaking to “see a student who is valedictorian from a school and they made a 14 on the ACT.”
He’s absolutely right. So who got fired?
When I reminded one teacher that Oklahoma has 400,000 school-produced illiterates, he chose to look on the bright side. “I would be willing to bet they still had teachers that cared for and about them,” he replied.
Well, sure. Even so, their lives have been altered forever. Vast sums of money and God-given potential were wasted. Who’s being held accountable for the damage?
It’s not just student performance. Consider the problem of bullying. It persists year after year—despite numerous rules and regulations on the books—sometimes with tragic and heart-rending consequences.
Sexual harassment, too. “Based on what I heard from my constituents,” former state Rep. Rebecca Hamilton (D-Oklahoma City) observed in 2014, “sexual harassment of girls in our public schools is close to being pro forma.”
Consequences For Adults
Do the adults face meaningful consequences for failing to build a healthy school culture?
“In reality, there is no entity in America that is less accountable than a government-run school system,” says retired public-school teacher Larry Sand. “They exist only because of taxpayer largess, and virtually no one gets fired when they screw up.”
As a matter of fact, “there’s a tradition in education,” former New York City school chancellor Frank Macchiarola and his co-author Thomas Hauser once wrote, “that if you spend a dollar and it doesn’t work, you should spend two dollars; and not only that, you should give those two dollars to the same person who couldn’t do the job with only one.”
Alas, that’s been the experience here. Oklahoma’s public education problems “are not due to underfunding,” says Oklahoma State University entrepreneurship professor emeritus Vance Fried. “Since 1972, per pupil spending has almost doubled in real terms with no improvement in academic outcomes.”
Don’t misunderstand—I’ve long argued that great teachers should be rewarded. Hats off to Oklahoma’s Epic Charter School where, thanks to merit pay, the highest-paid teacher earns $106,324.
But in our traditional public schools, we typically see across-the-board pay increases for great teachers, good teachers, mediocre teachers and bad teachers. Teachers who deserve pink slips get pay raises. That’s not accountability.
Same goes for government regulation—it’s not “accountability.” Corey DeAngelis of the Cato Institute points out that “according to the QuantGov database, the number of K-12 education restrictions has increased by almost 1,200 percent since 1970, while student achievement hasn’t budged.”
Encouragingly, a plurality of voters in my home state understand that public schools lack accountability.
True accountability is accountability not to bureaucrats but rather to parents. Happily, we’re now seeing examples of this voting-with-their-feet accountability. The Oklahoman reported this year that “41 percent of students who attend a virtual charter school in Oklahoma left their previous school because they were victims of bullying.”
Bullied students (including some who contemplated suicide) are also utilizing Oklahoma’s private-school voucher program.
Parental choice isn’t just a Milton Friedman thing or a conservative talking point. As Ron Matus recently pointed out over at redefinED, Great Society social-justice warriors pushing for private-school vouchers 50 years ago understood that “the poor have no means by which to make the education system more responsive.”
War on Poverty bureaucrats in the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity thus sought “a means to introduce greater accountability” through school choice.
We need more of it. Rules and regulations—whether 640 or 6,400 of them—are but a pale imitation of this genuine accountability. As many a beleaguered mall retailer can tell you, true accountability is an empty parking lot.
It’s not accountability if no one is held accountable.