Greg Forster, Ph.D. | July 14, 2021
Real accountability to parents trumps fake accountability to government
Greg Forster, Ph.D.
Oklahoma passed a major expansion of one of its school choice programs this year, and the education special interests aren’t happy. They’re signaling that they’re about to try the same futile gambit they usually try after this kind of major legislative defeat: fake “accountability” that takes away parental control. Expect this effort to fail in Oklahoma for the same reason parallel efforts fail in every state: once a school choice program exists, parents in the program fight to defend it.
Oklahoma is one of 31 states with private-school choice programs. One of the state’s two programs gives donors a tax credit if they give money to support scholarships that students can use to attend the school of their choice. Because the state is no longer responsible for educating the student in the government school monopoly, the government more than makes up the lost tax revenue in reduced school costs—and parents reclaim their right to control the education of their children.
Unfortunately, these programs are subject to caps on the total amount of funds that can be provided. Obviously these caps are arbitrary and unjustifiable. The program doesn’t cost the state anything, it just has the effect of shifting control of how the money gets spent from the government school monopoly to parents. That’s exactly why the education special interests that profit from the monopoly can’t stand it.
This spring, Oklahoma took a big step forward by expanding the cap on its tax-credit scholarship program from $3.5 million to $25 million. Unsurprisingly, the education special interests are furious. Also unsurprisingly, they’re responding the same way they usually respond. (People who line their own pockets by destroying children’s lives are not only wicked, they’re predictable; if they were gifted with creativity or long-term strategic vision, they might have found another line of work.)
Make no mistake: Restrictions on schools are restrictions on parents.
The special interests are making it clear that fake “accountability” will be their next push. They’re complaining that the other school-choice program in Oklahoma, a voucher program serving special-education and foster students, hasn’t been collecting enough information about participants. The state actually just increased its data collection on the program, tabulating a variety of demographic data it didn’t collect before, but for some reason the special interests are suddenly much more concerned than they were.
This concern-trolling about data is almost always the first step toward demanding new restrictions on parents’ control of the education of their own children. State Rep. Mark McBride commented on the new data collection, for which he led the push: “We wanted to make sure there’s no disparities and it’s fair.” So the goal is not something like monitoring compliance with nondiscrimination laws, which would be legitimate, but to take away parents’ control of education if the decisions they make for their own children produce any aggregate pattern that can be framed and presented as “unfair” in any possible respect, or as containing anything that can be used to create a narrative about “disparities.” It is, of course, literally impossible for parental choices to produce any aggregate pattern that will not be presented as “unfair” and “inequitable” by the special interests who line their own pockets by destroying children’s lives.
The typical next step will be to try to introduce restrictions on the schools that take scholarships through the program. This might include a push to control curriculum, impose policy decisions on the schools, or force schools to administer a particular test. Forcing schools to adopt the government’s preferred ideology of sexual morals is trendy these days; the U.S. Department of Education is now attempting to force its sexual ideology on all U.S. universities through the back door, via “guidance” that has no legislative basis but is nonetheless backed with the threat of executive action against noncompliance. A private lawsuit against a small, excellent Christian university in Seattle is seeking the same thing.
Make no mistake about two things. First, restrictions on schools are restrictions on parents. Just like taxes on corporations are passed on to consumers through higher prices, arbitrary and capricious rules for what schools are allowed to do are really arbitrary and capricious restrictions on what kind of education parents are allowed to give their children.
Accountability to parents is the real accountability. That is both because it is right and because it gets results. Accountability to government is fake accountability, because it always represents a contraction of the real accountability of parental control.
The track record is one of stunning and consistent defeat for efforts to impose fake accountability on choice programs.
Second, any effort of this kind in Oklahoma should be expected to fail. Despite enormous effort over the last 30 years, the special interests have never succeeded in imposing curricular restrictions on existing choice programs, nor have they managed to exert serious increased influence on school policy. At an earlier period in the choice movement’s history, before the steep decline of the special interests’ political power over the past decade and the dramatic increase in popular support for choice since the pandemic, there were occasional minor setbacks in this fight. But the track record on the whole, and especially in the past decade, is one of stunning and consistent defeat for efforts to impose fake accountability on choice programs.
Why? Simple: After a program is created, the parents in the program will show up and fight to defend it. Contrary to the ideological claptrap of the special interests, parents are not stupid, and they are not easily cowed by “experts” and “leaders” when it comes to the education of their own children. Where I live, in Wisconsin, when our very anti-choice governor tried to impose modest reductions in the size of our choice programs, the state Capitol building was flooded with children holding signs that said things like: “Please don’t take away my school!” The effort was crushed, and the governor found other issues to busy himself with. That story has been repeated time and again across the country.
School-choice programs are not a path toward increased government control of private schools, as some fear. On the contrary, as the U.S. Department of Education “guidance” and the Seattle lawsuit make clear, the principle of educational freedom is under attack regardless of choice. What choice programs do, in a unique and proven-effective way, is mobilize parents to fight on the side of freedom and justice.
Maybe the special interests really think parents in Oklahoma love their children less than parents here in Wisconsin do. If so, I hope they test that theory soon. I’ve got my popcorn ready.
Greg Forster, Ph.D.
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).