Ron Matus: Parents with power hold schools accountable, too

Shoes and arrows pointing in different directions on asphalt floor
Accountability in education has somehow become synonymous with regulations.
Ron Matus

Tamara Arrington moved to the Suncoast after picking the perfect school for her son, Parker. But despite a stellar reputation and A grades from the state, it turned out to be a disaster.

One day when he was in first grade, Parker stood up to an older kid who called his friend a racial slur. For the rest of the year, the bullies pounced on him. Arrington said she sought help from school officials, but to no avail. Parker spiraled down, hating school and getting headaches, until Arrington secured a Hope Scholarship, the state choice scholarship for victims of bullying. She used it to enroll Parker in a private school that she thought would be best for him — and now he’s safe and thriving.

“I have no doubt,” Arrington told me, “that every morning when I drop off my son at school, he’s going to come home a better human being.”

I share Arrington’s story in the hopes of chipping away at another education myth — that public schools are more “accountable” than private schools. In recent weeks, there’s been a spray of headlines (including from Florida Politics) about legislation that critics of education choice say would bring accountability to private schools serving students with choice scholarships, and “level the playing field” between public and private schools.

Similar bills in recent years got little traction, but a fair amount of ink.

If we really want more accountability, we wouldn’t try to turn private schools into public schools by making them follow the same regulations with testing, teacher credentials, etc. (which is what the bill proposes.) Instead, we’d give more parents more power to choose the schools they think are best.

Accountability in education has somehow become synonymous with regulations. But accountability is also exercised when parents can hold schools responsible. An A grade from the state didn’t help Parker. But a choice scholarship did. He got the high-quality learning environment he deserved — and his former school got the message.

Fair-minded people can have a healthy debate about where the line should be drawn between regs and choice. In Florida, the evidence to date suggests that when it comes to our choice programs, we’ve found a good balance.

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income students, for example, has been around 20 years and now serves about 100,000 students a year. Those students are required by law to take a state-approved standardized test, but not the Florida Standards Assessment that most public-school students take. Their teachers don’t have to be state-certified. Their schools don’t have to teach the state curriculum. The policymakers who shaped the program decided that instead of piling on mandates, they’d give parents the power to drive quality through their choices.

And how did that pan out? The evidence is encouraging.

A decade’s worth of test score analyses shows scholarship students were typically the lowest-performing students in their prior public schools, but are now making the same learning gains as students of all income levels nationally. Even better, a 2019 Urban Institute report found scholarship students were up to 43% more likely than their public-school peers to attend four-year colleges, and up to 20% more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees.

The benefits for public education (and all of us) don’t stop there.

The scholarship is worth 60% of district per-pupil spending. The program’s growth is spurring higher test scores and reduced absences in public schools. And at the same time Florida has expanded choice as much as any state in America, its public schools are boasting some of the strongest academic gains in America.

When schools know dissatisfied parents can and will leave, they adjust accordingly.

Better outcomes, less cost, steady progress. That looks like an accountability system that’s working. If choice opponents truly want a level playing field, they’d push for fewer regs and more choice. If they did, they might even find some unexpected allies.

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Ron Matus is director of policy and public affairs at Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that administers five of Florida’s choice scholarship programs, and a former state education reporter for the Tampa Bay Times.

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