Setting a Higher Standard of Accountability in Public Education

The following address was delivered by Mackinac Center Director of Education Policy Matthew Brouillette at the Michigan Association of Public School Academies's fourth annual conference, "Education's New Leadership," held in Ypsilanti Nov. 8, 2001.  Mr. Brouillette serves on the board of North Saginaw Academy, a charter school in Saginaw.

Checker Finn, Bruno V. Manno, and Gregg Vanourek wrote a commentary for Education Week entitled, "Accountability Via Transparency."  I draw on many of their ideas and words for my remarks this morning.

Accountability—as defined in traditional public education—depends on rules and compliance.  The modus operandi is rather simple:  Make schools follow lots of regulations, monitor and micromanage their activities, and ensure that enforcers keep anyone from doing anything unseemly.  When something goes awry, implement another regulation or empower another enforcer to ensure that such a thing never happens again. 

This language of "accountability-via-regulation" is the only one that most school systems speak.  It's also the one that many policy makers in Lansing have in mind for you as charter schools.  We know that this will only make our schools more like conventional district schools, crippling our potential to be different.  But this is a reality with which we must deal.             

Unfortunately, the burden only gets heavier.  In addition to "accountability-via-regulation," charter schools are also being held accountable by the marketplace; that is, accountability to parents, students, and communities.

As charter schools, we have accepted the challenge of serving two masters.  We are public schools of choice, and as such, we are accountable to both the government—through the state and our authorizer—and the market—through parents, students, and the community.  Both of these entities act as accountability agents; and both retain the ability to shut us down at any time. 

Accountability to the government is easiest to describe and monitor. While the theory is that charter schools are less regulated and thereby less accountable, the reality is that the differences between charter and district school accountability to the government are virtually indistinguishable.  The long list of rules and regulations is very familiar to everyone here. 

Accountability to the market, on the other hand, is less precise.  However, failing to account to the market can bring swift and severe punishments.  Simply put, accountability to the market means we must satisfy parental demands, improve academic performance for students, and strengthen relationships within our communities.  Failure to meet these demands means we will cease to exist.  Such accountability is nonexistent in traditional district schools.  In fact, districts that are academically, financially, and organizationally dysfunctional usually receive increased money and support instead of less. 

Although serving two masters can be difficult and sometimes conflicting, this is the predicament in which we find ourselves. 

At the Mackinac Center, we are working to reduce the overregulation of all public schools, charter and district.  Instead of regulating inputs, we are encouraging policy makers to measure outputs.  However, until then, we must continue to play by the "accountability-via-regulation" rules.  

In the meantime, charter schools should focus on demonstrating their accountability to the real consumers of education—parents, students, and the community at large.  This is where we can set a higher standard of accountability in public education.   

Checker Finn, Bruno Manno, and Gregg Vanourek call this "accountability-via-transparency."  The main function of such a system is to furnish parents, policymakers, taxpayers, and others with plentiful information about your school's workings and effectiveness so that good schools can be found and sustained while bad ones can be repaired or removed.  

This approach to school accountability is a regimen where so much is visible in each school that observers and constituents routinely "regulate" it through market-style mechanisms, rather than command-and-control structures.  If flaky people are operating a school with a weird curriculum, or money is squandered or test scores are sagging, this is no secret.  Either the school shapes up or it finds itself without students or its charter is revoked.  Conversely, a school that works well will find people lining up to get in.  Such an approach to accountability should also guide the relationship between charters and their sponsors and should inform the statewide charter program. 

Under the "accountability-via-transparency" approach, charter schools routinely and systematically disclose complete, accurate, and timely information about its program, performance, organization, and finances.  

Here is a key difference between district schools and charter schools. Traditional districts usually provide information to the public that is favorable.  Charter schools must provide information to the public that is representative.  This is an important distinction; and one that will set a higher standard of accountability for public education.

Accountability-via-transparency includes four important areas. 

Educational achievement.  Publicize academic indicators to demonstrate progress toward your goals.  Include your school's academic standards.  Explain your school's curriculum and instructional methods so parents can understand them.  Publicize the results of student assessments, disclosing enough about those assessments that readers can easily compare this school's achievement with other schools'.  Report your achievement in various ways: absolute terms, so parents can see student performance vis-à-vis the school's standards; value-added terms, so parents can see how much more students know at the end of a year than at the beginning; comparative terms, so parents can see how your school does in relation to district, state, or national norms or standards or the performance of other schools and students.  Break down the information into demographic categories such as, gender, ethnicity, and family income.

Fiscal soundness.  Demonstrate that your school is fiscally sound and well-managed.  Be sure your school undergoes an annual financial audit by a qualified firm and that you make the results public.  Demonstrate that you are a good steward of public money.

Organizational viability.  Publicize the organizational viability of your school.  Inform the public about your governance structure—who are your leaders, decision-makers, problem-solvers.  Publicize the demand for services in your school (number of applicants, number accepted, waiting list).  Inform the public about student and staff turnover, discipline issues, and other indicators of constituent satisfaction or dissatisfaction.  Provide detailed information on staff policy, qualifications, and practices.

Compliance with the law.  Publicize aggregate information about the makeup of your school, including gender, age, race/ethnicity, English-language proficiency, and disabilities of your students.  Demonstrate how you are complying with laws and regulations.  Don't give anyone the opportunity to accuse you of being dishonest or non-compliant with the law.

By focusing on being transparent, charter schools have the opportunity to establish a higher standard of accountability for public education.  However, we must recognize that we are under a microscope.  Opponents of charter schools are ready and waiting to trumpet our failures, so we must be prepared to answer their criticism.  Be your own harshest critic.

Publicize your successes, but be honest about your weaknesses and areas in need of improvement.  Remember, parents want accurate information, not just favorable information.  Don't try to hide your failures—they will be discovered.

We must embrace increased accountability.  If you can't stand by the educational services you are providing children, then give up your contract to someone who will.  Recognize that we are in this together and that we must encourage one another to exceed expectations of parents, students, and the community.  Comply with governmental regulations until we are relieved, but continue to focus on serving the educational needs of children first and foremost.

And finally, if we are willing to accept the challenge of dual accountability to both the government and the market, we will succeed in establishing a higher standard of accountability in public education. 

"As charter schools, we have accepted the challenge of serving two masters. We are public schools of choice, and as such, we are accountable to both the government-through the state and our authorizer-and the market-through parents, students, and the community. Both of these entities act as accountability agents, and both retain the ability to shut us down at any time."