Alan Borsuk’s education column in today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is likely to get a whole lot of attention. The topic? Accountability in the Milwaukee private school voucher program. The headline alone, “Scores show voucher schools need accountability,” is going to stir up what seems to be a never-ending debate in Milwaukee.
Though there are a couple statements in the column that seem unfair, (particularly the assertion that “Voucher schools, however, report to pretty much no one,”) it does clarify exactly what is currently meant by the term accountability in Milwaukee’s K-12 education system. This is no small accomplishment. For years leaders and policy makers have used the term accountability without defining what accountability actually looks like.
If you buy that Borsuk’s column is a representation of the dominant views on the issue, it is possible to make several conclusions about what is not accountability:
- First, accountability is not fiscal transparency. Since 2003 private schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) have faced stringent financial oversight. Program schools are audited annually, account for every public dollar they receive, and face the possibility of expulsion from the MPCP if they have ongoing fiscal problems.
- Second, accountability is not taking the same tests as public schools. Students in the MPCP take the same tests in the same subjects in the same grades as Wisconsin public school students. The scores of these tests are publicly released and available for review school-by-school.
- Third, accountability is not accreditation. Since 2006 schools in the MPCP have been required to work towards and obtain accreditation from an independent agency listed in the state statutes.
This does not mean that the release of test scores or accreditation or annual audits are unnecessary, just that they are not things that truly hold schools accountable. So what does? What is accountably? Below is a working definition:
Accountability is direct oversight from an outside entity empowered and obligated to shut down schools that are not meeting the agreed upon (by the school and the outside entity) academic performance requirements.
The charter sector operates closest to this working definition, while the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) and the MPCP continue to move closer to it. In practice, a system based on my definition of accountability brings up a ton of questions; who are the outside entity’s overseeing schools? Will and can different types of schools be treated the same way? What is the public’s threshold for school closures? Should input regulation play any role? Is there enough capacity for an entire school system to be built on this definition of accountability?
The good news is that these questions, however daunting, can be answered. Step one is for policy makers and public officials in Milwaukee and Madison to recognize the legitimacy and importance of all types of schools in Milwaukee. Step two is building on efforts to create a common report card to create a common understanding of accountability. Accomplishing these two steps will make the final step, developing policy that answers the questions I posed, possible.