Commentary

School Accountability Accounting

This article appeared in the Washington Times April 24, 2005.

“Public accountability” is what we get from public schools, and what we would lose if parents could choose their child’s school, especially private schools.

Government schools, we’re essentially warned, are all that stand between us and academic anarchy akin to philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ “state of nature,” a “war… of every man against every man” in which life is “nasty, brutish, and short.”

But public accountability has failed to erect a wall around the state of nature. Instead of keeping corruption and marauders at bay, poor parents and their children, as well as taxpayers who pay for the schools, have been locked into failure and corruption. Every day, around the country, the news makes this obvious. Consider just a few recent examples:

The Arizona Republic April 19 ran an editorial about the Colorado City, Ariz., school district, where a “polygamous cult calling itself the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints controls the Colorado City District School Board, which bought a $220,000 private plane while going more than $1.5 million in debt and issuing rubber checks to its teachers.”

An April 12 Associated Press article about New Orleans school superintendent Anthony Amato’s resignation noted Mr. Amato was leaving “after more than two stormy years in the post, during which the school system lost millions of dollars, federal officials investigated allegations of corruption and test scores remained among the worst in the state.” In Mr. Amato’s defense, the article noted financial problems and corruption were rampant long before he arrived in the Big Easy.

According to an April 11 Denver Post article, tiny Elizabeth, Colo., is still getting over several years when “a $300 cellphone, self-help books, catered parties and secret bonuses were among the goodies principals and administrators gave themselves. All the while, the school system was racing toward a budget crisis.”

Finally, there’s Roslyn, Long Island, in New York, where in March a state audit revealed district officials had stolen $11.2 million from the schools, spending it on everything from cars to Concorde flights.

For the people of Colorado City, New Orleans, Elizabeth and Roslyn, public accountability has clearly failed. Indeed, in each case the culprits behind the corruption were superintendents, principals, administrators and school boards — the very people entrusted with providing accountability.

Unfortunately, there are very few studies of public school corruption, forcing us to use mainly anecdotal evidence, like the outrages above, to conclude public accountability is a sham.

Recently, though, Lydia Segal, a criminal law professor and former special counsel to the special commissioner of investigation for the New York City schools, shed a little more light on how corruption takes hold. In Battling Corruption in America’s Public Schools she explains that far from protecting the integrity of public education, huge bureaucracies have “eroded oversight, discouraged managers from focusing on performance, and made it so difficult to do business with districts that employees and contractors have sometimes had to seek ‘creative’ or illicit ways to get their jobs done.”

Corroborating Ms. Segal’s findings is Making Schools Work by University of California-Los Angeles professor William Ouchi, a book on which Ms. Segal collaborated. Based on observations of many school organizations, from centralized districts like New York City to independent schools, Mr. Ouchi finds autonomy, not bureaucracy, is the key to success.

It’s not a new realization. In 1990, researchers John Chubb and Terry Moe came to the same conclusion in Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, and offered an answer to our woes: school choice, they said — letting parents and children out of the accountability pen — was the key to fixing U.S. education.

Unfortunately, though we know the “public accountability” on which we’ve counted so long doesn’t work, whenever choice is proposed those who have a stake in the status quo block it. Where’s the accountability, they ask. The reply is simple: While no system will ever be totally free of corruption, the best accountability comes from freeing every parent to select the schools that work well, and to escape those that betray their trust. In other words, the opposite of today’s “accountability.”

Neal McCluskey is a Cato Institute education fellow.