- Gov. Roy Cooper criticizes Opportunity Scholarship Program for not being accountable.
- The governor’s vision of accountability is rooted in his progressive ideals and his top-down understanding of the subject.
- Failing schools, disappointing test scores and dissatisfied parents call into question Cooper’s view of accountability.
- What does real accountability look like?
Gov. Roy Cooper has told us numerous times over the past several years that he doesn’t much like North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Program. At a recent breakfast event, the new Democratic governor said, “We really don’t know what these (private) schools are doing or how they are performing. Instead we need to invest in our schools.” [i]
Cooper and other critics of school choice say private schools lack the oversight of public schools. Cooper’s beef with the Opportunity Scholarship Program is that it supposedly lacks accountability. According to the governor’s thinking, if you take state money, students should take a standardized test and have the results reported.
North Carolina’s voucher law was written to give parents educational choice, protect a school’s institutional autonomy, and provide some information on how students are performing.
The governor’s distaste for vouchers runs deep. Remember that when Cooper was the attorney general he refused to ask the State Superior Court to overturn a Superior Court injunction stopping the program from moving forward.[ii] In addition, in various campaign documents (see here and here) candidate Cooper said vouchers drain much-needed financial support for the public schools. As governor, his budget priorities certainly reflect his views. Cooper’s budget recommendations reduced funding for the Opportunity Scholarship Program and the Governor’s Budget Office also said it “anticipates no new scholarships.”[iii]
What’s at the root of the governor’s actions? It’s his view of accountability and how it’s wedded to his progressive ideals and vision. That means Cooper believes in accountability to the public on the part of those in charge. Accountability, according to most progressives, is a top-down endeavor. Schools or organizations receive money and support from the government; therefore, the government needs to ensure schools are performing and using money wisely.
According to progressives, the best way for society and the economy to advance is for government to employ knowledge and technical experts and to ensure that the “public good” is protected. Since government has the resources and expertise to bring to bear on any problem, no issue should fall outside the realm of government. Because government has unlimited opportunities to do good, it must be free to exercise its power and not be constrained by such things as individual rights and limiting documents like the U.S. Constitution.
In the progressive vision, accountability, simply stated, is the means to ensure government policies are working and goals are being met. Oversight and regulation are the means to accountability and are tools to ensure that the nearly $13 billion in state, federal and local funding that North Carolina spends on schools is properly spent.
The administrative state is the legacy of progressivism. North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and various educational boards and agencies have been developed to ensure state government controls and directs public education. Such entities are charged with carrying out and administering the tools of accountability.
What is the legacy of these developments? Has the government indeed ensured that our schools are performing well and that they’re using our tax dollars wisely?
A quick look at the evidence on public education in North Carolina isn’t encouraging.
Let’s start first with the so-called “national tests,” the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Over the last 20 years, North Carolina SAT mean reading scores – even after controversial adjustments – have been declining while the math scores have had a little variation but have remained essentially flat[iv].
Regarding NAEP math scores, since 2003, fourth- and eighth-grade math scores have been essentially flat. Only 44 percent of fourth-graders and 33 percent of eighth graders who took the NAEP math exam scored at or above proficient. The numbers are similarly discouraging for reading. In 2015, 38 percent of fourth graders and 30 percent of eighth graders in North Carolina who took the NAEP reading exam scored at or above proficiency.[v]
It’s a similar story regarding state tests. In 2015, only 45 percent of grades 3-8 students who took End-of-Grade (EOG) tests were grade-level proficient in reading and math. EOG math scores exhibited a similar decline in 2015, when 57.2 percent of fourth graders and only 44.7 percent of eighth graders achieved grade level proficiency.
On End-of Course exams for English 2 and Math I, 58.8 percent of students were grade level proficient for English 2 compared to 60.5 percent on Math I. Whereas End-of-Course scores on English II and Mathematics on College-and Career Readiness standards saw less than half the students achieve the College and Career Readiness standards in English 2 ( 49.6 percent) and Math I, (49.8 percent). [vi]
Are any of these indicators in an acceptable range? The government has launched new initiative after new initiative. On the federal side alone we’ve had Goals 2000, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and Common Core. Each of these had a state component with testing and promised improvements. Did they deliver?
None of those programs met their expected outcomes, after spending billions of taxpayer dollars. The consequences are all around us.
But if there truly is accountability, which government agency is responsible for such a massive failure? If you can’t pinpoint who is responsible for a problem, can you really say there is accountability? The decades-long squabbling over who is in charge of education policy in North Carolina flies in the face of the accountability argument.
Large swaths of public schools have underperformed for years. Yet who has lost their job? Who is accountable? Instead of being shut down and/or restructured, failing schools receive more money to double-down on the failed status quo.
All that said, now we have Cooper presiding over a $13-billion-dollar system that has been failing too many kids, yet he is barking that voucher schools must be accountable. It seems like a shameless act.
Of course, accountability must be part of the voucher solution. That’s a given. The question is: Whose accountability; and, what form should it take? That’s the question we’ll explore more in part II of this article.
[i] NC Gov. Roy Cooper makes questionable claim about private school vouchers lacking accountability, POLITIFACT, The News & Observer, February 2, 2017. Available online at: http://www.politifact.com/north-carolina/statements/2017/feb/02/roy-cooper/nc-gov-roy-cooper-says-private-school-vouchers-lac/
[ii] Cooper and lawmakers split on how to pursue vouchers case, Mark Binker, April 14, 2014 WRAL. Available online at: http://www.wral.com/cooper-lawmakers-split-on-how-to-pursue-vouchers-case/13567794/
[iii] Governor Roy Cooper’s Recommended Budget 2017-19: Common Ground Solutions for North Carolina Available online at: ncosbm.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/documents/files/BudgetBook_2017_web.pdf. See page 59.
[iv] 2016 College Bound Seniors, State Profile Report North Carolina, The College Board. Available online at: https://reports.collegeboard.org/pdf/nc16030301.pdf
[vi] 2015-16 Performance and Growth of North Carolina Public Schools,: Executive Summary, Statistical Summary of Results, published by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, September 1,2016. Available online at: http://www.ncpublicschools.org/docs/accountability/reporting/exsumm16.pdf