The Case for Small Government

A Libertarian Perspective on Economic and Social Policy

March 22, 2006

Public Schools and Accountability

Florida is adopting a new method of encouraging good teaching in its public schools. Under this system, salary increases for teachers will depend on student test scores on state-wide exams, not just on seniority and academic degrees.

The policy is one variant of the accountability approach to improving public schools. The theory is that public schools work badly because no one faces real consequences from failure. Thus, policy should hold teachers and students accountable for their performance.

The accountability approach in general, and the Florida version in particular, sound reasonable at first glance. After all, most private employers use salary increases to encourage productivity. Yet caution about accountability is in order.

To begin, accountability does not address the single biggest problem with public school systems, the lack of competition. The ideal reform of public schools recognizes that government support of education does not require public schools. Instead, government can provide vouchers to parents of school-age children. All schools would then be private, and parents would have a choice about where to educate their children. Competition would generate the compensation schemes, curricula, and testing paradigms that conform to parent preferences.

A second problem with accountability is that teachers can respond in various ways. Some might expend more effort on teaching. But others might instead focus on test-specific skills, or encourage low-performing students to stay home on test days, or get students classified as learning disabled, or encourage cheating on the tests. The evidence suggests that both the good and bad responses occur.

None of this means Florida’s new approach is necessarily ill-advised. Assuming the public school system is not replaced by vouchers, merit-based salary increases might be desirable.

The danger, however, is that focus on accountability crowds out support for vouchers. Vouchers are no panacea, of course. But a true voucher system accomplishes everything achieved by accountability and more. So if accountability reduces support for vouchers, it is probably a bad idea.


At 8:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"the single biggest problem with public school systems, the lack of competition"

Because we are throwing out propositions without any empirical evidence, I'll join in. The single biggest problem with public school systems is not lack of competition, but rather lack of parental support at home. At least I have anecdotal evidence to back my proposition; my wife is a public school teacher.

At 8:51 PM, Blogger Gabriel M said...

Doesn't Levitt discuss this in Freakonomics? If I remember correctly he had an example of teachers enabling their students to cheat.

Re: anonymous's comment, competition between private schools is proof enough. Competition in a larger sense is also well documented. Don't underestimate incentived to work.

Regarding "parents support at home", that's rather vague. After 6-7 hours per day in school, should children have to worry more about the same issues at home? I guess that's not what you meant.

At 5:59 AM, Blogger Mike Huben said...

There are several stupid things about the "lack of competition" argument.

First, private schools (which are supposedly competing) don't do anything significantly different than public schools.

Second, communities do compete with their schools, and the quality of the school makes a large difference in values of homes in the community. People with children shopping for homes consider the schools very carefully in their housing decisions.

Third, experiments with vouchers have found them ineffective and prone to corruption.

Fourth, the claim that "lack of competition" is the problem is bogus. It's merely an ideological assertion with no measured basis.

And of course, vouchers have nothing to do with libertarianism or small government because they still retain government involvement in taxation and schools. They are merely a right-wing subterfuge to obtain government support for religious instruction in schools.

And so Professor Miron proceeds through the checklist of libertarian ideological hobbyhorses, contributing nothing new, and reciting hoary old dogmas to please the credulous.

At 12:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Government vouchers will only lead to private schools becoming addicted to tax dollars, and then to private administators giving in to government's mandates in order to keep the tax dollars flowing in. Thus, over time, government vouchers will have the effect of dumbing private schools down to the government schools' level. So just say no to Republican vouchers. They are poisonous bait, disguised as "choice."

The real solution:
Abandon government schools and funding. Use (truly) private education alternatives, even if it means foregoing some of life's luxuries. Do it for the children.

At 2:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Teach the test and only gifted classes.

At 4:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well the professors post sounds wonderful to me.

I have a concern though. Don't we already have a voucher system when it comes to the university system? Government gives loans and grants to tons of people. The result is that universities raise their costs accordingly and so the poor can't afford them so government offers more help and universities raise prices more and the whole system just spirals out of control and the middle class gets screwed because they aren't poor enough to qualify for help and not rich enough to not care. (Same for healthcare, btw.)

In an ideal libertarian world would we drop all educational funding? Is that really the best thing?

I guess that seems pretty extreme to me, but I can't think of a way around my conclusion. I'm not sure what to think.

At 11:27 PM, Blogger James said...

Some of the other comments here bring to mind something I've often wondered about: Why is it that there are people who are vehemently opposed to vouchers but almost as a rule, thes same people do not carry this opposition over to government grants for higher education?

Regarding huben's arguments,
1: False statement. 2: Yes, but education is not a natural monopoly. If a private firm that wasn't a natural monopoly had used the law to create switching costs as high as the cost of leaving town, people would call that a market failure. It's inconsistent to not call the schooling situation a government failure. 3: Even if the evidence on vouchers is as Mike claims (It isn't.), with vouchers, government enthusiasts can always send their kid to a government school no matter what I do. 4: Question begging.

At 6:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mike Huben makes another dumb comment. "Private schools do the same things as public schools." Nothing like uninformed generalizations. Elite private schools offer a much better education than even top-notch public schools. The reasons are clear: smaller class sizes, teachers that lose their jobs if they don't perform (too many parents complain about them), and careful selection of kids. That means that they don't have to take everybody. No one with learning challenges and no trouble makers.

Other private schools are hit or miss. Some are great and some are weak.

Public funding of education is a critical bedrock of our society...of any civil society.

There have been no real examples of choice. This is because, in order to work, choice has to be an all or nothing proposition. Either education is all privatized or it is all public.

At 8:55 PM, Blogger Mike Huben said...

Kas, there are elite public schools as well. Such as the Bronx High School Of Science and Boston Latin School. Both are reknowned, both pick their students, and neither harbors many difficult students.

In addition, schools with tracking systems essentially create elite schools within.

There are fine examples of choice in many nations. Check out this page from Alberta, for example.

But at least we agree that public funding is essential: many libertarians would consider it coercion and thus taboo.

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