California Parents Need Education Options, Not Government “Accountability”

Overall test scores for some 6 million California students in government-run schools fell this year for the first time in a decade. Rather than drumming up classroom instruction, California officials propose dumping the tests—and this move has fed ed officials fuming.

In itself, ditching California’s current Academic Performance Index (API) is a good thing. It’s a state and federal “accountability” mish mash that for years has misled parents, students, and taxpayers.

For a California public school to be deemed performing, it need only get an API score of 800 (on a 200 – 1,000 point scale). Students, however, need an API score of 875 to qualify as proficient. Thus at a given school deemed performing by the state and the federal government a great number of students could still be underperforming–if not outright failing (see p. 17).

This is what we get when we let state and federal politicians—along with their special-interest friends—run schools.

Fast forward to the current testing brouhaha. The California Teachers Association has never liked testing, or any other attempt at measuring schools by an external objective measure. Neither do Superintendent Tom Torlakson, Gov. Jerry Brown, and basically every other state schooling alphabet organization.

So transitioning to Common Core national standards gives these folks the perfect cover to delay assessments indefinitely through recently introduced legislation.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, however, is not amused. In a sternly-worded press statement, Duncan said that:

…letting an entire school year pass for millions of students without sharing information on their schools’ performance with them and their families is the wrong way to go about this transition. … If California moves forward with a plan that fails to assess all its students, as required by federal law, the Department will be forced to take action, which could include withholding funds from the state.

According to the latest figures from the U.S. Department of Education (2009-10) California receives some $8.9 billion in total federal funding—less than 14 percent of total K-12 funding. Even if—and that’s a big if—the feds withheld a few million dollars, that amount would be a rounding error given how much government schools in California get.

Still, even that unlikely scenario would be a big win-win for California’s education establishment: not only would they get to scrap testing, if federal funds were withheld they’d also be able to storm Sacramento and demand more money.

But there’s something more fundamental at stake when it comes to making California schools “accountable.” Even if the state did have the best possible assessment system—one that actually gave parents accurate information—what are parents supposed to do with it?

If their children are in poorly performing schools can California parents use a tax-credit scholarship to attend a non-government school or a government school outside their resident district? No.

Can California parents opt out their children from government run schools and have up to 90 percent of what would have been spent on them deposited into educational savings accounts (ESAs) instead to use for tuition, tutoring, or virtual classes? No.

The reality is many California parents don’t need some government-mandated “accountability” system to know their kids are in crummy schools. They need a way out.

Hopefully a great charter school is nearby and has room. If not, maybe parents can fight for months and years to pull the parent trigger and convert their child’s school to a better school. Absent those options, too many California students are stuck where they are.

Under a real accountability system, all California students and their parents could choose their education options at any time for any reason. But don’t hold your breath waiting for Brown or Duncan to agree. They’re too busy fighting over whether the state or the feds have ultimate authority over education “accountability.”

Vicki E, Alger is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Senior Fellow and Director of the Women for School Choice Project at the Independent Women’s Forum. She is the author of the Independent book, Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children.
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