A common refrain I hear in the course of my reporting and writing about school vouchers — a program that is set to take a large bite out of our public coffers in North Carolina in the months and years ahead — is that at the end of the day, it’s the parents who should be the enforcers of accountability for this publicly funded effort to shift state money into private schools.
“Parents know what’s best for their children and will seek an adequate, decent education for their children,” said Dick Komer, an attorney who works with the Institute for Justice, a pro-school voucher organization based out of Arlington, Virginia.
Komer said this on the day a case challenging the constitutionality of the school voucher program had winded its way to the state’s highest court. His claim was that parents, some of whom he represented in that case — and not administrators who oversee public schools — are the best at holding educational providers accountable, because it’s the parents who intuitively know best whether or not their students are learning.
There are some problems with this scenario, chiefly that a possible outcome will be that some students will enter into a private educational environment that may fail them and parents will only realize it after some time has passed and their children have consequently missed out on critical educational gains or worse. Accountability is achieved only after the fact, as the families move on to seek something better somewhere else.
Komer’s answer to that would likely be that there are local public schools that are also failing kids—an assertion that is one I would not refute. In 2016 North Carolina’s spending on students continues to rank toward the bottom in the nation and as resegregation reemerges in our public schools, it is clear that there are districts and buildings that are better resourced to offer high quality education than others. Unless we make some drastic changes, the scenario can continue on where kids—more often those who are poor and living in rural areas—will have limited access to high quality education.
Those are big problems to solve, no doubt. But there is one very big difference between choosing between a local public school and a local private school, publicly funded or not: the degree to which you can know in advance what you’re signing up for.
North Carolina has worked long and hard at achieving for our local public schools a strong system of accountability and transparency. It is not perfect, but it is a pretty robust apparatus that allows the public to understand how their tax dollars are being spent in our local public schools (and identify areas that need improvement). It also includes curricular standards that hold our students to high academic goals and works to ensure that our students are not discriminated against and kept safe.
The accountability system also provides a public record of how each public school is performing—graduation rates, standardized test scores, teacher quality and school safety are all measured and reported each year. There are some flaws with how this system has recently evolved; the new A-F school grades don’t adequately reflect how students grow academically over time at their schools. But, at least, parents can get a sense from the start how their local public school stacks up against other local public schools. In more urban areas like Wake County and Guilford County, there is choice built into the system and families can choose from a number of public school options—a transparent and accountable system of public school choice that’s worth building and investing on a larger scale to reach more students.
Conversely, transparency and accountability is something we don’t have for our our nascent school voucher program, which is scheduled to shift up to $1 billion in taxpayer dollars over the next ten years to private schools that are not required to adhere to any curricular standards or assess students in a way that is comparable to public schools. Our voucher program is one of the least accountable and transparent when comparing program participation standards to that of other states in a document authored by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
We need to ask more of a program that could spend billions of taxpayer dollars on education.
Lindsay Wagner works for the A.J. Fletcher Foundation as an education specialist.