In an era of expanded school choice, it’s more important than ever to work towards more and better educational options by ensuring fair and reasonable accountability policies
It's been a blockbuster year for school choice. Prompted by frustration over public schools’ failures in response to Covid-19—and private schools’ willingness to adapt and enable a safe return to classrooms—state legislators have introduced dozens of parental-choice proposals that would empower parents to send their children to private and faith-based schools. But these developments raise an important question: when private schools receive public funds, how should regulators hold those schools accountable for students’ academic performance?
In a new Manhattan Institute report, adjunct fellow Nicole Stelle Garnett, the John P. Murphy Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame, reviews current accountability regulations for private schools receiving public funds, highlighting the challenges that arise when parental choice and accountability policies intersect, and offering guiding principles for accountability regulations.
In terms of challenges to ensuring accountability, Garnett identifies the following themes:
- The political economy of accountability: strong political opinions surrounding school choice—either in favor or opposition—often represent the most significant challenges to fostering accountability.
- More and better schools: the twin goals of more and better educational options in parental-choice programs often come into tension with each other in the context of increasing accountability.
- Selection bias: selection-bias difficulties pervade efforts to compare the performance of students participating in parental-choice programs with their district- and charter-school peers.
- The limits of standardized-test-based accountability policies: most accountability metrics rely heavily on standardized test scores, which fail to capture important noncognitive indicators of school quality, including many that parents value more than test scores.
To rectify these challenges, Garnett suggests the following principles:
- Encourage transparency at the school level;
- Permit test flexibility;
- Develop alternatives to standardized tests to measure school quality; and
- Structure penalties to preserve better choices.
In an era of important Supreme Court cases surrounding school choice—like Espinoza v. Montana, which the Court decided last year, and Carson v. Makin, which it will hear this year—getting the accountability calculus right outside of traditional district schools is more important than ever. To that end, Garnett advises that information about school quality should be readily available, transparent, easy to interpret, and reflective of the school-quality criteria that matter most to parents. Arming parents with such information will enable them to serve as a first level of accountability. It will also empower them to drive improvements not only in their own child’s performance but also in school quality overall, promoting the important goal of more and better schools, while limiting the need for punitive regulatory interventions.