Reality Hits Sunshine State “Accountability”

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush is arguably the leading supporter of both the Common Core national curriculum standards and top-down, standards-and-accountability-based reforms generally. And there is broad evidence that he had success with his overall education program as governor, though that included a sizable—and likely influential—amount of school choice. Given that success, why does the “accountability” piece of his overall program seem to be eroding, with the state school board voting last week to “pad” school grades, for the second year in a row, greatly reducing how many schools are deemed failures? Answering this is crucial to understanding why top-down reforms like Common Core—even if initially offering high standards and strict accountability—almost certainly won’t maintain them.

Once again, we have to visit our ol’ buddies, concentrated benefits and diffuse costs. Put simply, the people with the most at stake in a policy area will have the greatest motivation to be involved in the politics of that area, and in education those are the schooling employees whose very livelihoods come from the system. And being normal people like you or me, what they tend to ideally want is to get compensated as richly as possible while not being held accountable for their performance.

The natural counters to this should be the parents the employees are supposed to serve and the taxpayers footing the bills. But taxpayers have to worry about every part of the state spending pie, and can’t sustain their focus—or motivation—for long on any particular pie slice. Meanwhile, parents are much harder to organize than, say, teachers and administrators, and are only parents of school-aged children for so long. Political advantage: those whom government is supposed to hold accountable.

That said, in Florida it sounds like many parents and taxpayers may be getting fatigued by test-driven school grades, adding onto the power of employee groups. Like we’ve seen in Texas, Florida’s politics may be reflecting a general exhaustion with standards and testing that fails to treat either students, or schools and districts, as unique. In other words, the likely benefits to breaking down such systems are being felt by more parents and “regular” voters, which doesn’t bode well for standards-and-accountability in Florida.

Which brings us to the crucial point about the Common Core. Supporters have a tendency to promise the world with the Core (often neglecting to mention that it provides no accountability itself) largely because they think the standards are very high. But even if they are lofty, and even if they are initially coupled with common tests with high “proficiency” bars—an increasingly big “if”—because of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs the odds of them staying that way are poor. It is a huge problem that Core supporters need to address, even for people who like the idea of “tough” government standards for schools. But sadly, many supporters seem to ignore the problem, choosing instead to tout how supposedly excellent the standards are, and attack as loony opponents who dare to oppose the Core for numerous, very rational reasons.

Unfortunately, it seems a major reason for adopting that tactic is to shield from honest debate a policy that will, by its very nature, impose itself on the entire country. That’s something no one in the country should be happy about.