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The Right Mix of Autonomy and Accountability for School Choice Programs

• Adam Peshek

As states move to expand school choice for students in 2015, many will contemplate how private schools are to be held accountable for student achievement. In November, ExcelinEd hosted a panel at our annual National Summit on Education Reform discussing this very topic: Autonomy vs. Accountability: The Right Mix for School Choice Programs.  We believe that choice programs should include minimum regulations around:

  • The health and safety of students;
  • Financial accountability to ensure that program funds are being used properly; and
  • Some academic measures to ensure that students are learning.

One question has preoccupied the school choice community for many years. What is the best way – if any – to measure student learning in choice programs?

Some believe that to keep private schools autonomous, states should not impose academic accountability requirements at all. Others think that private schools in choice programs should be required to enter the state’s accountability system for public schools. The opinions run the gamut and have taken root in different states across the country.

The disagreements, in my opinion, are the result of the education reform movement’s success.

Mike Petrilli at the Fordham Institute has described the “two tracks of education reform” that have existed over the past couple of decades. First, there is the school choice track, which attempts to improve education by decentralizing control, cultivating innovation and equipping parents with the ability to pick the best setting for their child. The second, standards-based reform, attempts to improve schools through the use of clear expectations, measuring student learning and holding schools accountable for student learning.

These are not necessarily competing tracks. In fact, they quite often work hand-in-hand. Often, the same legislators, governors and other officials that support school choice are also supporting standards-based reforms. In many cases, the same policymakers that sponsor standards-based reforms are the same ones championing school choice.

These policymakers believe in their states’ assessments, and there is ample evidence that their reforms have created improvements in student learning. So it’s natural for these lawmakers to wonder why we wouldn’t want to require private schools of choice to take the same test.

It’s a reasonable thought process, and one that has played out in many states across the country.

This map illustrates the states with active private school choice programs, and it shows what tests states require for private schools participating in those programs.

Testing Requirements by State

I believe that the dark red states create the right mix of autonomy and accountability by allowing participating schools to choose among the state test or a norm-referenced test. I prefer this method for a few reasons:

  • It provides information on student learning,
  • It allows private schools to maintain their autonomy,
  • It does not stifle innovation,
  • It avoids the slippery slope of regulatory creep, and
  • It provides choice – which is the goal of these programs to begin with.

For much more information on this topic, check out the panel discussion Autonomy vs. Accountability: The Right Mix for School Choice Programs. This discussion provides additional context and thoughts from me, Scott Jensen with the American Federation for Children, and Doug Tuthill with Step Up for Students.

About the author

Adam Peshek @AdamPeshek

Adam Peshek is Managing Director of Opportunity Policy at ExcelinEd, where he provides strategic support to state leaders interested in developing, adopting, and implementing policies that increase educational options for children. He has provided expert testimony in more than a dozen state legislatures and is a frequent commentator on ESAs, school choice, and education policy across the country. He is also the is the co-editor of the first published volume on ESAs, Education Savings Accounts: The New Frontier in School Choice. Adam currently resides in Atlanta, Georgia and is a Senior Fellow with the Beacon Center of Tennessee.