Conservatives argue that markets will solve social problems more efficiently and effectively than the public sector while liberals insist that markets leave too many behind and that government intervention is needed to protect those most at risk.
[pullquote position="left"]Education reform proves them both right. The combination of individual choice and government-driven accountability has
lifted educational outcomes for millions of children. Take either one away, however, and many of the gains disappear.
Parents Want Choices
Today, the parents of nearly 10 million school children have opted out of the traditional public school system for private schools, charter schools or home-schooling. Choice is likely to grow in the years ahead given the
strong public support for charters, and
increasing numbers of states that allow the use of public dollars for private schools. While choice has provided better educational options to millions of children, however, it has done little to drive change in traditional schools. There are
some notable examples where traditional public schools actively learn from high-performing charters and change their practice, but in most cities the bureaucracy, including teacher unions, is trying to
stifle competition through political means.
Truth and Consequences
That’s why accountability is needed. High standards, aligned assessments, performance goals and mandated interventions have forced schools to get better or face consequences, from changes in curriculum, leadership and staffing to changes in governance. Accountability only works, however, with real commitment at the local level and, increasingly, that commitment is in question. Many states and districts have been reluctant to impose needed changes on underperforming schools. Instead, many opt for modest interventions that have the
least impact. With respect to teacher evaluation,
some 40 states now have policies on the books requiring the use of test scores as one of several factors in evaluating teachers, but most states and districts struggle with implementation.
Many teachers say they
value the feedback from evaluations, but teachers unions
aggressively oppose the policy. As for maintaining high standards and aligned assessments, most states have stayed with the Common Core or a close variation, but more than half of the states that adopted the aligned assessments have since dropped them. Lack of alignment between standards and assessments undermines accountability.
Politicians on all sides are missing the bigger picture. If Democrats abandon accountability and tolerate low-performing traditional public schools, they feed into the Republican narrative that government just doesn’t work and that the market will better solve our problems. Choice will grow as parents vote with their feet. If Republicans weaken accountability and tolerate low-performing charter schools, there will be more calls for oversight and growing hostility to charters. Choice will stall, bureaucracy will expand and monopoly will prevail. The absence of verifiable progress also weakens the case for more funding, which charters and traditional public schools both want and many need. Without proof of progress, it’s hard for 1 in 3 Americans who actually use the public schools to convince the other two to continue investing in education. As an election issue, education reform may not play especially well in the political primaries where extreme voices and voters tend to dominate. In the broad middle, however, there is a clear consensus that accountability and choice are vital. Hopefully, the political parties will notice.
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with