Accountability starts with competition

Published 11:00 pm Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Atlanta Journal Constitution has, quite rightly, been receiving a lot of praise lately for uncovering a cheating scandal in the Atlanta schools. Thanks to their old school, investigative reporting, 35 indictments have been issued to Atlanta teachers and administrators. The indicted are charged with doctoring standardized exam answers to assure pass rates for their students and schools. If we are to believe the accusations and the reporting, some even held “cheating parties” where teachers sat around changing test grades over drinks.

The cheating scandal, while a bit different in kind with the “cheating parties,” is not materially different from many of the other scandals we’ve seen in K-12 education in recent years. It’s just the latest case in point of how our public schools are failing our kids.

Like Atlanta and the rest of the country, Alabama faces similar problems statewide when it comes to student learning outcomes, and the issue here and elsewhere stems from one main factor: a lack of competition in education.

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Teachers enjoy tremendous job security, and there are minimal incentives-besides innate personal drive-to do the right thing as a teacher. Great teachers are seldom rewarded with merit pay for great work. Lousy teachers are seldom let go. In fact, some school districts go to extreme lengths to protect their worst teachers. In New York City, the worst teachers and those involved in pending lawsuits are put in “rubber rooms” instead of having them teach; in other words, taxpayers pay them not to work and to just go to the teachers’ equivalent of study hall for the day! $200 million per year is spent on paying teachers not to teach; yet, just 1 percent of the city’s 80,000 teachers receive unsatisfactory annual personnel reviews.

In competitive markets, a failure to satisfy customers and stakeholders means firms must close and people must be laid off. When public schools fail to teach children and assure good stewardship of taxpayer dollars, they often get rewarded. Teachers respond to incentives, and their status as employees in a monopolistic market, with minimal competition and high barriers to entry, allows many of them to behave irresponsibly.

Legislation like No Child Left Behind was an attempt to address our nation’s educational mess through standards and some “sticks” of punishment for schools that don’t shape up. But, it and other programs miss the point: Our mess in education is due to the way it is funded, structured, supplied, and protected by government. Until competition and choice are introduced to the equation, scandals and a general failure of our kids-especially those in poor areas-will persist.

School choice, charter schools, and a lowering of entry barriers into the education market are working, and school superintendents and the educational establishment should be scaling up these experiments. Voucher programs, which give parents money to shop for schools and get their kids out of failing schools, have worked well in small trial runs in places like downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin. If lawmakers had the courage to disrupt the status quo and entrenched educational interests, the right ideas about how to fix the system are out there.

The problem, of course, is that unions and school administrators work in tandem with politicians to assure nothing major changes. We see this here in Alabama with watered down K-12 reforms, a strong Alabama Education Association, and resistance to reforms like charter schools, which are working very, very well where implemented. The personal stakes for the educational establishment and politicians—jobs and votes—are too high…even when it’s kids and their future hanging in the balance.

Fortunately, parents and children in some of the worst American schools know they are being played by the establishment. Some of the parents are tired of their kids’ failing at the expense of self-interested, irresponsible teachers like those being indicted in Atlanta. We can only hope they can discover that the secret to their child’s success is an environment where the teachers are the ones at risk of failure.

Scott Beaulier is Executive Director of the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University.