If there is one mantra that dominates every discussion about education in America, it is "accountability." We've heard about "accountability measures" and holding schools "accountable for results." The president and Congress, understandably tired of throwing good money after bad, passed the No Child Left Behind Act to make schools accountable.
But to whom should schools be accountable? A recent briefing at the White House for advocates of school choice addressed that question.
Just as the No Child Left Behind Act was a political peace treaty between the president and a Democratic Senate, it also reflects an ideological detente between two different views of accountability. Some lawmakers want schools to be accountable to government, while others want schools to be accountable to parents.
That is no minor distinction. It reveals two fundamentally opposing views of the role of the state in family life.
Those who prefer government accountability think that future generations should be shaped based on a deliberative democratic process. They embrace the idea of a school system that unites society by teaching roughly the same things to all students. And they think that government agencies are best able to ensure that high standards of quality are met.
But many Americans believe instead that schools should be accountable to parents first. On the heels of a century of public education in neighborhood schools with no choices, this is a radical idea. Its adherents think that families have a right and a duty to shape the next generation. They also think that no bureaucrat can choose schooling for a child as well as a parent can.
Thoughtful lawmakers should join forces with this second group. Government has had decades to decide where children attend school, with poor results. Moreover, while states must now measure the progress of various subgroups - minorities, disabled students, children from low-income families - government agencies cannot hold schools accountable for the performance of individual children.
By contrast, school choice empowers parents to hold schools accountable for the personal success of each child enrolled. Because schools cannot be all things to all people, every parent should be free to choose a school that suits her child's specific needs.
Each faction in the "accountability" debate has its favorite part of the No Child Left Behind Act. Politicians who like government accountability tout new testing regimens and a complex system of monetary penalties and rewards. Those who want to empower parents see the Act as a way to force states to provide choices to families trapped in failing schools.
But the Act's school choice provisions have had little effect. The administration wanted states to give parents of children in failing schools the ability to choose private schools. But the private school option proved a losing battle in Congress, and accountability to parents is still elusive in most places.
School districts with failing schools must only provide transfers to another public school of the district's choosing, and only on a space-available basis. Parents who want to leave all schools that cannot teach -- and will not change -- are finding that they still have no alternatives.
For example, the Chicago Tribune reported last fall that Chicago had about 125,000 students in "failing" schools. But the city allowed fewer than 3,000 transfers to schools only marginally less dreadful than the failing ones.
States must innovate to make schools accountable to parents rather than to bureaucrats. Florida, for example, offers Opportunity Scholarships to children in failing schools. Parents can choose private schools that are "academically accountable to the parent or guardian for meeting the education needs of the student."
At the White House briefing, Education Secretary Rod Paige emphasized the importance of accountability to parents, saying, "Choice is a necessary condition to reform." All speakers implored parents to demand faster state action on the parental choice provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act.
As the besieged education establishment slowly gives ground to reform, the intellectual battle about what "accountability" should mean is no mere skirmish. It will determine how much educational freedom American parents may hope to secure. Secretary Paige described the difficult nature of this battle, saying, "The problem today is not that we don't know what the solution is. We just haven't yet mustered up the political will for those solutions."
Lawmakers who think parents deserve to choose must fight for a version of accountability that empowers them to choose. Without choice, a public agency holding a public school accountable will quickly resemble one blind man leading another.