Yesterday the State Board of Education distributed its Vision Statement on Public Education. For the most part, the two page document contained no surprises. It included lots of lofty rhetoric about public education as the foundation for democratic institutions and our economic prosperity; the board’s commitment to educational standards and the importance of diversity and economic opportunity.
No surprises that is until you got to the last paragraph of a section titled “ A coherent and flexible system”. The section talks about the expanding view of public education to include charter and virtual schools. The section also discusses the need to “coordinate” public and private sectors in light of expanding public funding for private schools.
Because many students move between the private and public sectors, some form of coordination between these sectors is appropriate. If public funds were to be made available – whether in the form of school vouchers for parents or state revenue foregone in the form of tax credits for scholarships – the private and religious schools benefiting from such funds would need to be incorporated far more explicitly into the public school system. That would be necessary because state policymakers have a responsibility to the state’s taxpayers to assure that the funds are being used to promote the public interest and not just the interests of the direct beneficiaries.
Red flags went up when I read the second sentence saying “private and religious schools benefiting from such funds [i.e., school vouchers or tax credits] would need to be incorporated far more explicitly into the public school system.” While I agree accountability rightfully comes with the receipt of public funds, the key question is: what kind of accountability? Subsuming private schools underneath the umbrella of the public schools is not likely to be a popular or workable idea. The State Board of Education seems to be saying receipt of public funds makes private schools, public schools — and therefore under the control of the State Board. I disagree. There are other accountability mechanisms short of control that can ensure accountability. Some of these include independent governing boards, professional associations or accrediting boards as well as market incentives. Since students at Duke, Wake Forest and Davidson receive state and federal financial aid, would the State Board of Education argue that they be explicitly incorporated into the UNC System and be directed by the UNC Board of Governors?
Private institutions already have mechanisms to ensure funds are properly spent. There is no question that these institutions operate in the public interest. For these reasons, incorporating private K-12 schools into the public school system is as bad an idea as folding private institutions into the UNC System. Expanding state oversight to essentially make private institutions public is not the way to proceed. It reflects a brittle and outdated view of public and private institutions. There are other measured; more appropriate ways of ensuring accountability that not only allow private schools to remain private but also offer real educational choice for students and parents.