In November 2000, I wrote that, in spite of incremental improvement in some areas, the public school accountability measures adopted around the country over the past several years will never be enough to truly transform public education. The problem is incentives and what passes for accountability. The only real accountability rests with customers (parents) who are empowered to exit the system if it isn’t producing the desired results for their child. This provides the only incentive that school administrators will ultimately respond to. If there is no meaningful threat to funding and job security because of poor performance, there is no accountability. This raises another question: what constitutes poor performance? Again, there should be institutional standards and plenty of testing, but parents are the ultimate judges of failure. There is clearly evident moral hazard in permitting the school bureaucracy to define what constitutes acceptable performance while also controlling the evaluation process. Any education reform package that does not recognize that parental choice is the key to accountability is not worthy of the name. That is the big disappointment in what became of President Bush’s education bill and what happens when a “bipartisan” bill-signing ceremony takes priority over a principled fight that should have had at least equal priority with the tax cut.
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