| April 1, 2016

School Choice and 'Accountability'


1. Public schools are not as “accountable” as we’re led to believe. Public schools are heavily regulated, to be sure — but “rules” and “regulations” are not synonymous with “accountability.” If government officials could simply regulate schools to success, then “our public school system would be wonderful,” education professor Jay Greene points out. After all, “they have no shortage of regulations and prohibitions, all designed by well-meaning people to make those schools perform well.”1 Regrettably, they don’t perform well.2 As one Oklahoma educator with a doctorate in education has noted, “more than 20 percent of our state’s population, or nearly 400,000 people, can’t read.”3

Oklahomans instinctively understand the meaning of the word “accountability.” If the food is terrible, the waiter brings us another meal or we don’t have to pay. If it happens time and time again, the cook gets fired. In short, someone is accountable. But do ineffective administrators or teachers get fired? Do ineffective schools close? Do taxpayers get their money back? In short, economist John Merrifield writes, “we have decades of evidence for 50 U.S. school systems of what politically accountable collective decision-making by overwhelmingly well-educated, well-intentioned public officials yields: persistent ‘Nation at Risk’ schooling outcomes in every state.”4

2. Accountability to government officials is a pale imitation of true accountability. Accountability to government officials is actually the weakest kind of accountability, Merrifield says.5 Moreover, as scholar Jason Bedrick explains, “It is inappropriate to impose an accountability system designed to regulate a monopoly on a market. Private schools are directly accountable to parents, who have the ability to vote with their feet if the school fails to meet their needs. By contrast, public schools are accountable to politicians and bureaucrats, not parents. Indeed, many low-income families have no financially viable options besides their assigned district school. Without the crucial feedback loop that direct accountability to parents provides, states and localities (and even the feds) have imposed numerous regulations to improve quality, generally with little success. Unfortunately, these top-down regulations have become synonymous with ‘accountability’ when they are but a pale imitation of direct accountability to parents.”6

Indeed, as other scholars have noted, “true accountability comes not from top-down regulations but from parents financially empowered to exit schools that fail to meet their child’s needs. Parental choice, coupled with freedom for educators, creates the incentives and opportunities that spur quality. The compelled conformity fostered by centralized standards and tests stifles the very diversity that gives consumer choice its value.”7

3. Light regulation doesn’t mean no regulation. In addition to being accountable to families, private schools are already “accountable to the general public and government authorities,” the Friedman Foundation reminds us. “Private schools in every state comply with a vast array of health and safety regulations, anti-discrimination and civil rights laws, and even rules covering the minimum number of school days.”8 Oklahoma schools participating in the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship program9 and the Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship program10 must comply with numerous requirements. Indeed, the latter program “ensures academic accountability to parents and guardians of students through regular progress reports.”11

4. State funds need not require accountability to the state. “The oft-repeated claim that state funding requires accountability to the state is an obviously shallow and false political slogan rather than a well-considered policy view,” education professor Jay Greene writes. “Most state-funded programs require no formal accountability to the state and instead rely primarily on the self-interest of the recipients to use the funds wisely. For example, the largest domestic program, Social Security, is designed to prevent seniors from lacking basic resources for housing, food, or clothing. But we don’t demand that seniors account for the use of their Social Security checks. They could blow it at the casino if they want. We’re just counting on the fact that most would have the good sense to make sure that their basic needs are covered first. Even in the area of education, most government programs require no formal accountability. Pell Grants, Stafford Loans, and the Daycare Tuition Tax Credit do not require state testing for people using those funds. We just trust that the public purpose of subsidizing education will be served by people pursuing their own interests.”12

5. Heavy regulation brings unintended consequences. As Greene noted at a recent presentation in Oklahoma City, a heavy regulatory hand can shrink the supply of quality private schools and can undermine schools’ mission, autonomy, and effectiveness.13 “Whereas school choice programs with a lighter regulatory burden yielded positive results,” Jason Bedrick adds, “the technocratic attempt to ensure quality through regulation [recently] yielded the first negative results of any school choice program ever studied. The large body of positive findings should continue to give us confidence in the market approach to education reform, but the latest NBER study should serve as a sobering reminder of the limits of our ability to engineer outcomes from above.”14

6. It’s important to level the playing field. Many in the education community complain that public schools don’t compete on a level playing field, Jason Bedrick writes.15 “Sure, they’re fully subsidized while private schools are not, but the district schools have to comply with more burdensome regulations than the private schools. … The reason district schools are so heavily regulated is because, unlike private schools, they are not directly accountable to parents. If a private school isn’t meeting the needs of students or their parents, they can take their children and their money elsewhere. By contrast, low-income students are often a captive audience at their assigned district school, so the school does not have to be as responsive to their needs. Instead, districts and states impose numerous regulations in an attempt to approximate the real accountability that comes when parents can choose." Republicans control Oklahoma’s executive and legislative branches of government. If the goal is to make all schools “play by the same rules,” wouldn’t the conservative instinct be to eliminate the heavy-handed rules for public schools rather than to add rules for private schools?

7. Parental choice is accountability. “The vast majority of Republicans assert belief in limited government, and belief in markets as bastions of rock-solid accountability to actual and potential clientele,” economist John Merrifield reminds us.16 “We’re familiar enough with this principle of accountability in other contexts,” Greg Forster adds.17 “If a doctor or grocery store or restaurant gives you bad service, you hold it accountable by taking your business elsewhere. We do this because it respects the freedom and dignity of the customer — and also because it works. Schools are almost the only type of organization we don’t hold accountable in this way. The fact that school choice involves public dollars is no reason to shun this morally right and highly effective approach to accountability. We give people food stamps and then let them choose where to buy their food instead of running state-owned grocery stores and creating a federal grocery regulator. One of the best policy improvements in recent history was the change in housing subsidies from government-owned ‘housing projects,’ which were consistently horrific, to what are called ‘Section 8 vouchers,’ which subsidize housing but let people choose where to rent.”

As several scholars pointed out in this magazine: “There is no compelling body of evidence that top-down regulation improves student outcomes in schools that are already directly accountable to parents. By contrast, there is much evidence that direct accountability to parents yields results superior to those that are defined by bureaucratic red tape.”18

8. Be humble about the ability and benevolence of regulators. In The Fatal Conceit, F.A. Hayek observed, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” As education professor Jay Greene says, heavy regulation is simply central planning built around test scores. It is wise to “be humble about the ability and benevolence of regulators and their tools.”19

1 Jay P. Greene, “Ed Reformers are Not a Smarter Version of the Government,” January 21, 2016,
2 “Oklahoma ranked 46th in the nation with a grade of ‘D+’ in an annual national report released today that measures states on academic performance and outcomes across a detailed range of criteria.” Oklahoma State Department of Education, “Supt. Hofmeister comments on Oklahoma’s performance in ‘Quality Counts’ report,” January 7, 2016,
3 State Sen. Earl Garrison, “Illiteracy has solution with Oklahomans’ help,” Muskogee Phoenix, September 23, 2008,
4 John Merrifield, “Political Accountability Failure vs. Market Accountability Failure,” October 14, 2014,
5 John Merrifield, “Mindless Fallacies about Accountability,” April 28, 2015,
6 Jason Bedrick, “Leave School Choice to the States,” April 16, 2015,
7 Joseph Bast, Jason Bedrick, Lindsey M. Burke, Andrew J. Coulson, Robert Enlow, Kara Kerwin, Herbert J. Walberg, et al., “Parental Choice Is Accountability,” April 9, 2014,
8 Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, “School Choice FAQs,”
9 American Federation for Children, “Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship for Students with Disabilities Program,”
10 American Federation for Children, “Equal Opportunity Education Scholarships,”
11 Enrolled House Bill No. 1693,
12 Jay P. Greene, “Stop Requiring Choice Programs to Take State Test,” Education Next, November 20, 2013,
13 Jay P. Greene, “The Dangers of a High-Regulation Approach to School Choice,” presentation at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, December 3, 2015,
14 Jason Bedrick, “The Folly of Overregulating School Choice,” Education Next, January 5, 2016,
15 Jason Bedrick, “Who’s Afraid of School Choice?” March 17, 2015,
16 John Merrifield, “Mindless Fallacies about Accountability,” April 28, 2015,
17 Greg Forster, “Choice Is the Real Accountability,” June 29, 2015,
18 Bast, et al., “Parental Choice Is Accountability,” April 9, 2014,
19 Jay P. Greene, “The Dangers of a High-Regulation Approach to School Choice,” presentation at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, December 3, 2015,

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