Michael Emlaw
Michael Emlaw is associate executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators. He served as a school superintendent for a combined 30 years in three different Michigan school districts.

Are private schools accountable to the public?


"Right now, a private school is free to tell you anything they want, or nothing." Alex Molnar, Professor of Education, University of Wisconsin

Most private schools are not publicly accountable. It's a key difference between public and private education and it needs examination.

Public accountability is rooted in the notion that there are essential activities, services, and public policies that serve the commonweal. These activities, services, and public policies are so important to the well-being of the larger society that they must be open to the full view of all.

In the area of community health, for example, it's easy to see the importance of public accountability. We cannot have individuals or groups determining for themselves whether or not to use or dispose of toxic substances because those decisions affect us all. We choose, therefore, to surrender some measure of unfettered individual freedom in accepting public accountability and conformance to external standards developed to protect the common good. But any oversight is accomplished in the bright light of public accountability, where we all see how our public policies are being implemented and where we all can make judgments about the appropriateness of the actions of those who act on our behalf.

Clearly, the concept of public accountability has the potential to conflict with individual freedom. For example, another community health issue is smoking, and we have struggled as a society with the degree of oversight that is appropriate. Does an individual have a natural right to risk his or her own health by engaging in a risky activity? What if the public must pay for the consequences of those individual decisions through increased health care costs? What about those, such as children in the home of a smoker, who suffer the secondhand consequences of the adult's decision because they cannot make another decision? Is this justification for laws against smoking in certain areas or tax policy designed to curtail smoking?

What then of education? Our social and political values hold that an educated populace is essential to maintenance of our democratic society and a strong economy. Our deepest traditions support the ideal of each individual able to participate and decide public policy issues, and contribute to our economic well-being, using the foundation provided by education.

Such beliefs, then, call for a public discussion of the fine balance between our acknowledgement of parental responsibility for the education of children and parents' consequent right to choose (and pay for) a private education according to their convictions and values as well as the larger society's interest in well-educated citizens. We come then to the question of whether or not private schools are sufficiently accountable to the public.

The answer is often "yes." As Professor Alex Molnar of the University of Wisconsin notes, private schools may choose to fully share information with the public and many do. But many do not, reasoning that they have no obligation larger than serving their own constituency of parents or sponsors. Despite the compelling interest of a democratic society in measuring the quality of their efforts, some private schools respond that they only need to be accountable to the adults who send their children to them.

In our state, private schools may decline to have their students take state tests or report the results of those tests, do not need to conform to minimum days and hours of student instruction, may refuse to conduct governance meetings openly, may exempt themselves from teacher certification and teacher testing requirements, may decline to publicly report financial information and may ignore public requests for information. These rules and requirements that private schools may evade are the standards that society has concluded serve the commonwealstandards with which all public schools must now comply.

No one has an objection to private education, which has a long and solid record of accomplishment, and those private schools that are fully accountable on a voluntary basis are to be commended. The policy question, however, is whether or not the public should know whether or not all private schools are meeting minimal standards of public accountability. They certainly should.

Michael Emlaw is associate executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators. He served as a school superintendent for a combined 30 years in three different Michigan school districts.