30th Anniversary of School Choice in America – Part III

Accountability of Private vs. Government Schools

By: George Noga – August 15, 2021

Accountability is the go-to argument of those opposed to school choice.

30th Anniversary of School Choice in America – Part III

Accountability of Private vs. Government Schools

By: George Noga – August 15, 2021

Since the founding of the school choice movement 30 years ago, opponents in government, unions and the media have tested many arguments against vouchers. They first claimed private voucher schools could be used as witches covens or Ku Klux Klan klaverns. When that failed, they argued vouchers would drain funds from public schools – even though per pupil funding actually is increased. Next, they asserted religious voucher schools are anti-LGBTQ. When that failed, they screeched private schools are unaccountable and that has been their go-to mantra ever since. In this post we contrast accountability of private schools versus government schools.

Accountability in the Private Sector

Private sector businesses compete to provide accountability to consumers; there is no such thing as an unaccountable free market. Von Mises said it best, “Markets are a daily plebiscite in which every penny confers the right to vote”. The private sector is accountable from the bottom up, with consumers exercising control directly by what they buy. Consumers register their choices about one specific product at a time.

Markets, including for private schools, deliver safety, quality and value in many ways. The primary method is branding; when you buy an Apple computer, the company’s reputation is on the line. Another method is franchising; when you eat at Olive Garden, you know what to expect. A third method is independent rating services like Consumer Reports, BBB and Underwriter’s Laboratories. Another powerful method is social media and online ratings, where even a few lousy reviews can torpedo any business.

A good example of market accountability is Uber. With Uber, consumers get location, name, photo, driver rating, fare and arrival time. They get a spotless car, prepay via credit card, get an email receipt and rate the driver. Uber drivers are solicitous of the customer’s comfort and safety; many even offer complimentary bottled water.

Government Accountability (Oxymoron Alert)

Government (including public schools) doesn’t compete and is accountable to the consumer (voter) only indirectly and infrequently. Government schools do not have branding, franchising or independent ratings and are oblivious to social media. To the limited extent it may exist, accountability is from the top down. Consumers can exercise limited control only through the political process once every four years. Voters must select among candidates with positions on numerous issues; they cannot register a choice about any one product or service. Further, in many jurisdictions accountability is impossible due to political dominance by interest groups or voting blocks.

Let’s contrast Uber with government-regulated taxis. With taxis you get no information about location, the driver, fare or arrival time. What you do get is an unkempt driver with poor English who drives aggressively. The taxi has a musty odor, blares obscene music and costs triple Uber – and no credit cards accepted. Complaints are futile. Which is more accountable, the private sector (Uber) or government (taxis)?

In one school district (Providence, RI) with 25,000 students, an independent review found peeling lead paint, brown water, leaking sewage, rats, frigid temperatures, classroom chaos, bullying, no discipline and rampant violence. Only 5% of students were at grade level. And they spent $18,000 per student – 50% above the national average. These horrors have been going on for decades with no accountability.

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Private schools are immediately and directly accountable. If parents are unhappy for any reason (educational quality, cost, safety, values), they can switch to another school; if enough parents are unhappy, the school must improve or go out of business. Contrast this with the Providence, RI schools which have failed for decades, will continue to fail and will never close. If Providence parents are unhappy, they cannot change schools. Complaining to elected officials is pointless because one party (Democratic) controls all elections. How much of that kind of accountability do you want?

The next time you hear voucher schools are unaccountable, remember the parents of Providence, Rhode Island. Teachers unions, government and media claim they want to regulate voucher schools to make them accountable to politicians who will promptly turn them into the same veritable hell holes parents are desperately trying to escape.

Next week in Part IV we take on the issue of teacher pay.
More Liberty Less Government – –