Accountability, Public and Private

1 04 2014

That there have been blog posts about incivility in the debate over the privatization of education–particularly discussions of charter schools–is weird, but maybe it shouldn’t be surprising.

Byron Sigcho of the University of Illinois at Chicago has an interview where he talks about the “accountability” of charter schools–specifically he says that charter schools, despite getting public money, are not “accountable” to the public. In defining accountability as, in essence, being under the democratic supervision of people in their role as citizens–“electors”–and taxpayers, Sigcho highlights why charter schools in particular evoke such rancor: they are a distilled example of the ideological divide and normative values of the sides of the debates, neoliberals and liberals on the one hand, and the social democratic/unionist left on the other.

I won’t feign a lack of a position on the issue of school privatization: agin’ it, with some caveats (for example, I support the existence of charter schools as laboratory schools). That doesn’t mean I don’t often consider the arguments of the opponents. I think the arguments of popular charter supporters like Jonathan Chait or Matthew Yglesias are perfectly sound, I just vociferously disagree with some of the premises. That may just be one of those intractable differences.

For example, charters, by one way of thinking, are more accountable to the public. This is because, unlike public schools, children aren’t predestined to attend a school by virtue of their parents’ address. Parents have no choice but to send their kids to the assigned school. The whole point of charter schools, after all, is that those schools that fail to create sufficiently good outcomes to cause parents to choose those schools will lose their access to the schools market–i.e., their charters will be revoked if they are underutilized. What could be more accountable than that? Not only that, it is only parents of schoolchildren to whom charters are accountable, not the entire public! It isn’t fair, the argument goes, that people without children and parents who use private schooling have as much or even more say in which schools survive and how schools are run. Let the preferences of the users of the public school system, through the aggregation of their individual choice, mold the school system. I mean, duh.

Sellers of goods and services are the most important kind of accountable: by definition, they only provide those goods and services that people are willing to use.

This is where the disagreement comes in. I don’t think sellers of goods and services are all that accountable, precisely because they’re not accountable to those who don’t buy from them, even if they have an impact on them. Take any number of big corporations that are the subject of boycotts. I may not want them to build a Big Box store in my neighborhood, and consciously choose not to shop there, preferring my local small businesses. As the Big Box drowns the small businesses and unionized shops, it decreases my choices, depresses local wages, causes an adverse environmental impact, I’m indisputably impacted. But there’s no way to make them accountable to me, except democratically.

With education, people on one side may see it more as a non-rivalrous public good. Charter supporters may see it more as a something of a commodity meant to provide an individual, material benefit (e.g., improve ability to get a better job). Improving hirability is definitely one function of an education, but having more critical thinkers, people with stronger social skills (and bonds), artists, and citizens are just as important–they benefit the public, they’re a public good, like having more firefighters or museums. Thus a strong educational system inures to everybody’s benefit (or detriment), and “schools” should be accountable to the public, not just the individual consumers of the service.

This may be why the mere idea of schools that are privately owned, rather than publicly run, is so instantly offensive to some. The answer, that the public exercises control through the chartering process itself, is unsatisfying: first, because it makes the supposed advantage of charters nonsensical. A charter chain that has high enrollment would be both hard to close, and objectively successful. How could a public body feasibly revoke their charter? Not to mention, it’s hard to imagine any efficient process that allows the public to manage what are in essence administrative contracting decisions.

This gets to the risk of rent-seeking and regulatory capture by large charter chains, but that’s a sufficiently different issue to merit its own discussion, as a practical effect (rather than a base assumption) of privatization. It would be interesting to see more discussion of school privatization in terms of accuracy and testability of the premises underlying the rationale for privatization.