State-Driven Accountability Is Not Dead, But It Should Be

Private school choice programs have been proposed in state legislatures all across the nation, and public interest in the term “school choice” reached an all-time high earlier this year. Since school choice programs create accountability to parents and children, education scholars have discussed whether state-driven accountability is on the wane. While robust accountability to the state is essential in traditional public schooling institutions, it is inferior to accountability to every single family.

Necessary in Involuntary Settings

Accountability to the public is necessary in schools with compulsory attendance based on age and zip codes. What would happen if state officials did not set minimum standards? Public schools could serve children inadequately and even harm them to a certain degree before parents were forced to decide whether to pay out of pocket for a private institution or move. In many cases, parents would not be able to afford to opt out of the free school due to income constraints.

Suppose you were required to send your child to a residentially assigned public restaurant until they were eighteen years old, because, after all, nutrition may be the most basic right of them all. If your child becomes sick from food poisoning, you may still decide to keep them there based on income restrictions and perceived differences in quality. Of course, the state would need to intervene in order to keep the compulsory public restaurants accountable to minimum safety and, perhaps, taste standards.

Political Process Problems

While state accountability is necessary in the public sphere, we should recognize the shortcomings. First, who is deciding what the standards ought to look like, and how do we keep those people accountable? The commonly cited answer is that state officials are held accountable to the public through the political process. The main problem with that argument is that it assumes that the political process is efficient in holding bureaucrats accountable. 

Inefficiency runs rampant in the political sphere because voters do not have an incentive to become politically knowledgeable. If I am voting in a presidential election, for example, I have around a 1 in 60,000,000 chance of determining the outcome. On the other hand, it is extremely costly to gain information on every policy that a given politician talks about and influences. The counterintuitive result is that voters actually make a rational decision to be politically irrational.

Even if all voters were completely rational, we would still face the problems associated with majority rule. Policies around educational standards result from the most politically powerful groups in society. The consequence is that children from disadvantaged groups are harmed by the uniform set of standards decided by the elites. 

Similarly, suppose we went into the grocery store and voted on the cart that we received. Even if we were in the majority and got the cart that we preferred, we would still end up with some of the things we wanted, and much of what we did not care to have. 

Consequences of Central Planning

I have sat in many rooms filled with intelligent people attempting to determine what educational accountability systems ought to look like. What measures should we focus on? What weights should we assign to each measure? What do we do to schools that do not meet goals? Each individual truly tries their best to improve the educational experiences of all children. However, it is sadly an impossible problem to solve, especially given the constraints of the traditional system of schooling.

Perhaps most importantly, something as small as altering the weight of a certain accountability measure is likely to change the life trajectory of many children. Should character skills assessments count as 11% or 10%? If we arbitrarily decide on 10%, rather than 11%, we may very well harm children at the margin that desperately needed behavioral development. The result? Moving the needle in the wrong direction could mean that one more child, at the margin, ends up in prison for the rest of their life.

We should not force children to suffer the consequences of the political process. Instead, we should allow all families to get what they want through voluntary educational choices, regardless of income level or political power.