Educational Choice and Accountability

Ideally, all families would have access to the education that best meets their children’s needs. However, education reformers disagree over what sort of system best achieves that goal: one that relies primarily on parental choice and market forces, one that relies on government mandates, or one that employs some combination of the two.

Even supporters of educational choice acknowledge that private schools, left to their own devices, will not always deliver a high-quality education. They also realize that parents will not always choose thoughtfully. Some choice supporters therefore advocate a more active role for the government in attempting to ensure quality through top-down measures, such as mandating the state’s standardized tests, teacher certification requirements, curriculum/content standards, and so forth.

It is a mistake, however, to simply assume that such government oversight can accomplish its intended aims. It is important to realize that existing public schools are not only minutely overseen by the state, but are actually run by it, and they nevertheless perform unsatisfactorily in many cases — sometimes abysmally. As a result, we have to compare school choice systems operating with and without extensive government regulation to see whether those regulations actually improve educational quality overall. When we do that, comparing education systems around the world, we find that the most market-like, least regulated systems show the greatest advantages over public school systems such as we have today. In practice, government oversight is simply less effective than unfettered market forces at driving educational quality.

Similarly, while it is true that parents do not always choose thoughtfully, the historical and international evidence strongly suggest that, on the whole, they do a better job than distant bureaucrats. Here again, we have to compare imperfect parents with imperfect government officials — not with an idealized notion of how we wish government bureaucracies behaved.

Moreover, top-down regulations impose a considerable cost of stifling diversity and innovation. When the government decides centrally what will be tested, when it will be tested, and how it will be tested, schools face tremendous pressure to conform. That leaves schools with less freedom to try new methods of delivering education or even to teach concepts in a different order than prescribed by the tests.

Such compelled conformity undermines the very diversity that gives parental choice its value. First, different families have different values and priorities. A government-imposed standard forces citizens with mutually exclusive views into social and political conflict with one another. Private schools have traditionally served to lessen the social conflict inherent in government schooling by providing an escape valve. However, government-imposed standards on private schools would eliminate that escape valve, forcing private-school parents back into conflict with their neighbors.

Second, different children have different educational needs and may learn best at a different pace than the one set by a particular set of standardized tests. Recognizing this reality, countless education providers are seeking to tailor education to meet the needs of individual children using a wide variety of methods, platforms, and speeds. One-size-fit-all regulations threaten those efforts.

Bureaucratic “accountability” measures are ultimately ineffective and counterproductive. They stifle innovation and diversity and foster social conflict without any compelling evidence that they raise overall educational quality.

The most effective education systems are those in which schools are held directly accountable to parents. Choice within a competitive marketplace is accountability.

Next up, read about The Way Forward: Education Tax Credits or Vouchers?

Additional Resources