A new statewide school voucher program in Louisiana is getting a lot of attention regarding a topic us Wisconsinites are familiar with: accountability.
Specifically, a group in Louisiana called the Public Affairs Research Council wrote a letter to Louisiana State Superintendent John White urging him to be more specific about how the Louisiana Department of Education will regulate schools accepting vouchers, and work to “phase [schools] out of the voucher program if they cannot improve.”
The debate in Louisiana brings to mind two questions relevant to Wisconsin’s ongoing discussion on the role of school choice programs in statewide education reform:
First, what is the desired balance between accountability and autonomy in education reform?
One of my first experiences in public policy was hearing a member of the Joint Committee on Finance passionately state her position on school choice accountability, “it is simple” she said, “it is the same standards.” I thought then and I think now that it is far from that simple. Students learn differently, teachers teach differently, and parents and students want and need different things out of K-12 education. Serving Wisconsin’s diverse student body by definition requires diverse approaches and a degree of school level autonomy.
But standards still must exist. The initial regulatory structure in Louisiana is dependent on what I deem “the great man theory of education reform.” Louisiana offered broad criteria and then left it up to the state superintendent to come up with the specifics. The regulation of the Milwaukee and Racine school voucher programs is quite different. Though the Wisconsin State Superintendent of Public Instruction does have discretion to shut down schools that pose a threat to the safety of pupils, most of Wisconsin’s voucher regulation is specific and relatively explicit in state statute.
John White may have all the answers, but like Milwaukee learned with Howard Fuller, and like D.C. learned with Michelle Rhee, lasting improvement to an education system requires much more than a brilliant energetic leader. Leaders come and go, systems, and the cultures of those systems, persist. Which leads directly to the second question:
Is school choice about parental freedom, or is it a governance reform?
The market-based education reform Milton Friedman advocated has never come close to existence. In Milwaukee for example, the school voucher program remains limited to a (growing) subset of eligible parents and schools. Whether the failure of the Milwaukee voucher program to bring wholesale improvement to the Milwaukee Public Schools is a result of an imperfect program or an imperfect concept is largely irrelevant at this point. What is relevant is that school choice programs (vouchers and charters) in their current or likely future form should not be expected to bring large substantive improvements to traditional public school systems.
Also relevant is the inherent value of giving parents freedom to choose the school they want for their child. Certainly this is one reason parents in Milwaukee, despite the city’s overall low level of achievement, have comparably high levels of satisfaction with their schools. However, a view implicit in the charter school model and also gaining traction in the voucher and public sector is that low-performing schools should be shut down regardless of what parents think. Take a look at Wisconsin’s new accountability system; high enrollment numbers will not stop state intervention in a low-performing school.
Current choice policies in Wisconsin (and elsewhere) are based in part on parent freedom, but have evolved into something much closer to a governance reform. Independent charters and private schools vouchers are systems of independent schools that by definition practice school based management in curriculum, instruction, and personnel decisions. These schools are also not burdened by the legacy costs, excess facilities, and other non-classroom pressures driving decision-making in large school districts.
Planned or not, a plausible case can be made that choice and charter programs are becoming a public education governance reform that is, in places like Milwaukee, steadily enrolling a larger and larger percentage of publicly funded pupils. Acceptance of school choice as governance reform means coming to terms with, as they are trying to do in Louisiana, the need for ensuring (and the appropriate role of the state in ensuring) that failing schools are not permitted to fail indefinitely.