Private schools are primarily accountable to parents and caregivers, who can pull their children out of a school that fails to serve them. By contrast, if a public school fails to perform, parents are essentially powerless. They have very little practical means to hold the school accountable; they are stuck, unless they are able to move to another school district.
Private schools are not just accountable to families, however. They are accountable to the general public and government authorities. 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. In addition, most private schools already are required to undertake financial audits and evaluate student performance using standardized tests.
MYTH: Private schools are unregulated
A common argument against vouchers is that private schools are essentially unregulated, and that children can suffer when placed in schools that do not obey basic accountability regulations.
FACT: States do regulate private schools, even in the absence of school choice programs.
As the accompanying table shows, states apply a number of rules and regulations to private schools. Moreover, federal law requires educational institutions to comply with nondiscrimination policies. An analysis of 23 school choice programs in 12 states found that nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of statutory regulations on private schools existed before the enactment of the private school choice programs.1
EVIDENCE: School choice programs have strong accountability.
Critically, more regulations do not always mean more accountability. What gives the concept of accountability teeth is a parent’s ability to choose a school freely. Still, school choice programs do employ reasonable accountability and transparency measures.
In Wisconsin, for example, voucher schools must be accredited, obey all laws that apply to Wisconsin private schools, follow state accounting standards, file independent audits, comply with health and safety codes, and comply with civil rights laws.
For another example, Florida schools that wish to participate in a special education voucher program must hire teachers who have a bachelor’s degree, three years of experience, or special qualifications. Schools must demonstrate fiscal soundness, comply with anti-discrimination laws, meet health and safety codes, maintain a physical location in the state, provide parents with a written explanation of their students’ yearly progress, give the Department of Education any documentation required for a student’s participation, and complete a yearly five-page notarized questionnaire covering issues such as the number of teachers and food safety inspections.
The Florida Department of Education also is empowered to make random site visits “to verify the information reported by the schools concerning the enrollment and attendance of students, the credentials of teachers, background screening of teachers, and teachers’ fingerprinting results.”2 The Department of Education can revoke a private school’s participation if it deems the school has failed to comply with Florida law, or if the school has been operated in a way contrary to public health and safety.
These sorts of accountability regulations are present in other jurisdictions that offer vouchers or tax credits.
MYTH: School choice programs force increased rules and regulations on private schools.
Opponents of school choice—and, in some instances, even supporters of school choice who are opposed to specific policies—claim school choice increases regulatory burdens placed on private schools.
FACT: Just as parents can choose to use school choice, private schools can choose to participate if they find the program’s rules and regulations satisfactory.
Based on the history of existing school choice programs, vigilance and responsible stewardship of programs are working. For more than 20 years, attempts to transform private schools into over-regulated public schools through school choice programs have failed. Opponents of vouchers have tried to increase the regulations on private schools participating in school choice programs, and, in nearly all of these cases, parents and supporters defeated them. In a few special circumstances, some school choice programs have adopted reasonable accountability rules in cooperation with school choice advocates and private schools.
Some principals have cited concerns about required regulations as one of the top reasons for not participating in a school choice program,3 and some research shows voucher programs may increase the regulatory burden imposed on choice private schools—although the latter also shows individual tax credit/deduction programs and tax-credit scholarship programs had five times fewer regulations than voucher programs.4 However, other research shows that “a lack of voucher-eligible families in the region” is the main reason that many schools do not participate in a school choice program, rather than the potential regulatory burden.5 More than half of the private schools in 13 choice program jurisdictions participate in voucher or tax-credit scholarship programs, even though increased regulations make private schools less likely to sign up for a choice program.6 However, slight increases in regulations may lead to the schools with the lowest test scores choosing to leave a school choice program, as was the case in Milwaukee.7
State Regulation of Private Schools
|District of Columbia||X+||X||X||X|
X indicates that state law mandates all private schools must meet the requirement.
X* indicates that state law mandates specified private schools must meet the requirement.
X+ indicates that state laws allow this practice as one option to comply with a state mandate or requirement.
Source: Office of Non-Public Education, State Regulation of Private Schools (Washington, DC: US Dept. of Education, Office of Innovation and Improvement, Office of Non-Public Education, 2009), tables A2 and B, pp. 326-29, http://www2.ed.gov/admins/comm/choice/regprivschl/regprivschl.pdf
1. Andrew D. Catt, Public Rules on Private Schools: Measuring the Regulatory Impact of State Statutes and School Choice Programs (Indianapolis: Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, 2014), edchoice2016.wpengine.com/PublicRulesOnPrivateSchools.
2. The John M. McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program, Fla. Rev. Stat. § 1002.39 (2014), http://www.leg.state.fl.us/statutes/index.cfm?App_mode=Display_Statute&Search_String=&URL=1000-1099/1002/Sections/1002.39.html.
3. Patrick J. Wolf, Babette Gutmann, Michael Puma, Brian Kisida, Lou Rizzo, Nada Eissa, and Matthew Carr, Evaluation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program: Final Report, NCEE 2010-4018 (Washington, DC: US Dept. of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance), http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/pubs/20104018/pdf/20104018.pdf.
5. David A. Stuit and Sy Doan, School Choice Regulations: Red Tape or Red Herring? (Washington, DC: Fordham Institute, 2013), p. 5, http://www.edexcellence.net/publications/red-tape-or-red-herring.html. Just 3 percent of nonparticipating schools thought regulations were the most important concern; however, 27 percent of schools did find regulations a major reason for not participating.
7. Wolf, The Comprehensive Longitudinal Evaluation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program: Summary of Final Reports, SCDP Milwaukee Parental Choice Program Evaluation Reports 36 (Fayetteville: Univ. of Ark., Dept. of Education Reform, School Choice Demonstration Project, 2012), http://www.uark.edu/ua/der/SCDP/Milwaukee_Eval/Report_36.pdf.
“Are Participating Private Schools Held Accountable?,” Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, last modified July 31, 2015, http://www.edchoice.org/school_choice_faqs/are-participating-private-schools-held-accountable.