NEW REPORT: The Accountability Myth

For those of a certain age, the phrase “It’s a simple question” will remind us of Will Ferrell’s Harry Caray impression on Saturday Night Live.

Ferrell took Caray’s already over-the-top persona and ramped it up even more, shaking his head and increasing and decreasing the volume of his voice at random intervals as he asked ridiculous questions to the “guest” on his talk show. For example, he asked an astronomer, played by Jeff Goldblum, if the Moon was made of cheese, would he eat it. When Goldblum demurs, Ferrell-as-Caray replies with “it’s a simple question.”

Here’s a simple question: Can you name more than two members of your local school board?

Here is another one: How much does your local public school spend per pupil per year?

Here is a third: If that school is not educating kids to a sufficient degree, what happens to it?

Are you struggling to answer these questions like an astronomer struggling to decide whether or not he would eat the moon if it was made of cheese? Don’t feel bad, most people cannot answer them even though they pertain to schools that educate their children or grandchildren and are funded by their tax dollars.

The opacity of information around how schools operate and how they perform undergirds what I call in a new EdChoice paper “The Accountability Myth.”

My argument has three parts.

1. I don’t think that schools are financially accountable.
2. I don’t think that they are democratically accountable, and
3. I don’t think that they are educationally accountable.

Our polling has repeatedly shown that Americans are in the dark about how much public schools spend. Shockingly, school parents are actually worse at estimating the cost of K–12 education than the general public. Both groups dramatically underestimate how much schools spend, and they usually guess that they spend somewhere between one-third and a half of what they actually do.

We shouldn’t be surprised because the correct information is incredibly hard to find. When it can be found, different sources contradict each other. Some categories are included and others excluded depending on who you ask, and different jurisdictions use different accounting practices when totaling up spending figures.

If we don’t know how much schools spend, we cannot hold them accountable for their spending. And we don’t know how much schools spend.

Schools are governed by school boards, who are, in the majority of cases in America, elected in low-turnout, off-cycle elections. Fractions of the population that vote in traditional elections particpate in them. This gives organized interest groups a huge advantage in getting who they want elected and thus securing favorable partners for contract negotiations. This problem is widely known, and has been for some time, and yet hasn’t changed.

If elections are tilted to advantage organized interest groups over average citizens, it is much harder for average citizens to hold elected officials accountable. And school board elections are tilted to advantage organized interest groups over average citizens.

Every state in the nation has devised an accountability system for its K–12 schools that ostensibly collects data and then intervenes in schools that are not performing at the necessary level. All of these plans have the approval of the federal department of education. Crack your state’s plan open some time. If you can wade through the typically 100-plus page document, you will see pages of complicated rubrics and calculations, safe harbors and alternative metrics that, taken together, make it very easy for schools to find the points that they need to stay out of trouble.

If schools and districts can manipulate the statistics that are used to judge their performance, we cannot hold them accountable for the education that they provide. And schools and districts can manipulate the statistics.

Why should we care about this? Why does this myth need busting?

If you have ever been in a legislative hearing when a new school choice program is being discussed, you have probably heard an opponent say, “Public schools are accountable, but private (or charter) schools are not.”

Choice advocates, correctly, contest the second part of that statement, arguing that private schools are accountable to the families that they serve. Families can vote with their feet and have a fine-grained view of what is going on in the school.

The purpose of this paper is to contest the first part of that statement: Public schools aren’t held accountable. They are not accountable for the money they spend. They aren’t held accountable by the democratic means that exist to oversee their actions. And, they are not held accountable by the convoluted systems states have devised to manage their performance.

So both sides of that statement are false.

Myths are comforting. It is often easier to believe them than to embrace the cold, hard truth. But myths can also be dangerous. If myths obscure important truths or stand in the way of trying to change things that need to be changed, we must dispel them.