Education

Greg Forster, Ph.D. | December 2, 2021

Parents’ children, parents’ choice

Greg Forster, Ph.D.

Looks like I was right this summer, when I predicted that in Oklahoma’s coming legislative year, opponents of school choice would focus their media messaging on “accountability.” In fact, the only effective accountability system for schools is to give the power back to the people who ought to have had it in the first place—the parents. The results of government “accountability,” by contrast, are on display in the government school system.

Tom Deighan, Superintendent of Duncan Public Schools, recently published an op-ed in The Duncan Banner about school-choice programs (“Public money, public rules for vouchers”). These programs allow parents to use the public funds set aside for their children’s education to send their children to the school of their choice, public or private. So as a professional guardian of the education status quo, naturally Deighan wants to find some way to prevent these programs from making real alternatives available to parents.

But Deighan had to conceal his attack on choice in the form of qualified support. His article was part of a series outlining “common ground upon which parents, educators, and communities can unite.” Since choice is highly popular in Oklahoma, Deighan could hardly take his stand against it openly while claiming to be pronouncing the boundaries of “common ground.”

Deceptively, Deighan writes: “It will undoubtedly surprise some people, but as a superintendent of a public school district in Oklahoma, I do not oppose vouchers—as long as anyone receiving public funds has to follow the same rules a public school follows.” He follows this with a very impressive list of all the specific ways in which private schools need to be folded, spindled, and mutilated into exact duplicates of government schools before Deighan thinks parents should be allowed to exercise “choice” and attend them.

His list of mandatory conformity for private schools includes taking exactly the same tests, which means the curriculum and pedagogy must also be the same as government schools. He demands they hire teachers on the same basis—worthless teaching certificates that are long proven to have no relationship to educational outcomes—and follow exactly the same “accountability” rules. He even demands they provide exactly the same student services and extracurricular activities.

What’s left for schools to offer parents a choice about? The school mascot?

This is like saying you support letting families decide what to eat for dinner, as long as they decide to eat hamburgers every single night. Hey, you’re free to put your choice of ketchup or mustard on them. It’s a free country! We’ll even let you put cheese on them, sometimes, provided you do it through our government-controlled cheese accountability system.

Throughout his article, Deighan repeats like a mantra the slogan “Public Money, Public Rules.” He even capitalizes it, just to make sure you know it’s a Real Thing. But the actual public in Oklahoma has been consistently voicing its support for bigger—and freer—choice programs. The public is wising up to the gap in Deighan’s way of thinking, or rather his way of not thinking.

What is the public’s interest in education? Is it to ensure all children are pressed into molds, like machine parts on a factory assembly line? Or is it in the public’s interest to recognize that both human nature and the American experiment in a free and equal citizenry demand that education be answerable to parents?

One thing that’s definitely not in the public interest is “accountability” that is under the control of politicians and never holds schools accountable to anything but serving special interests. A large body of high-quality empirical research has consistently found that school-choice programs deliver academic results for the students who use them. And it also finds consistently that government schools exposed to choice programs improve their academic results as well—because parent accountability is real accountability. Schools have to serve kids well or see them leave.

I’ve got an “accountability” question for Deighan: According to brand-new data from the same state accountability system you’re so in love with, only 27% of students in the system you run are “proficient” or better in academic performance. Only 10% of African-American students in your system are proficient, and none—zero percent!—are above that level. When are you planning to resign?

I’m all for Deighan’s idea of “Public Money, Public Rules,” if we adopt the rule that really serves the public. That rule is pretty simple to grasp: “Parents’ Children, Parents’ Choice.”

Greg Forster, Ph.D.

Contributor

Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a Friedman Fellow with EdChoice. He has conducted numerous empirical studies on education issues, including school choice, accountability testing, graduation rates, student demographics, and special education. The author of nine books and the co-editor of six books, Dr. Forster has also written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. His latest book is Economics: A Student’s Guide (Crossway, 2019).

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