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January 23, 2014 11:41 AM Can Voucher Programs Be Publicly Accountable…And Still Be Voucher Programs?

By Conor Williams

But it’s also possible that it is just miserably difficult to design or maintain accountability for voucher programs. Public school districts, bureaucratic behemoths that they (often) are, have a considerable advantage here: their students are educated together, in a relatively limited number of buildings, by the district’s own employees. While district administrators have a heavy regulatory burden to bear, at least it’s within their locus of control.

But voucher programs have none of those advantages. Their administrators must keep track of public money flowing into facilities and administrative systems across the region and into the pockets of various private sector employees. It’s next to impossible to oversee this sort of a program efficiently or hold it to any clear set of standards. Their students are scattered across various buildings, classroom settings, and curricula.

The problem, of course, is that that’s what vouchers are designed to do. They’re supposed to support diverse educational options scattered around the educational (and geographic) landscape. And that’s why serious voucher accountability may be a pyrrhic pursuit: a voucher program with meaningful accountability requires more standardization than voucher supporters will accept, while a voucher program without accountability will be too clouded by misinformation to provide the free education marketplace supporters promise. Real accountability undercuts vouchers’ purpose, but neither can they function well without it.

Which, by the way, helps explain Fordham’s efforts to find a middle ground—accountability geared only to state tests, but with some punitive teeth—have been met with such a hostile response. It’s a noble effort, but one that won’t satisfy advocates any more than skeptics. While that’s sometimes good news in polarized debates, in this case, it simply highlights the central tension at voucher programs’ core.

[Cross-posted at Ed Sector]

Conor Williams is a Senior Researcher in the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation. Find him on Twitter: @ConorPWilliams

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