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1. The Nature of Accountability

By Daniel E. Witte

Sutherland Institute applies the FARM paradigm (Flexibility, Accountability, Representation and Modularity) to assess particular educational proposals. The Accountability element invites a basic question: What does it mean to hold a government school properly accountable?

A recent movie, Waiting for Superman, does a fine job of describing the current problem. The existing government school system is a broth spoiled by too many cooks. Federal bureaucracies, state bureaucracies, local officials, union representatives, vendors, lobbyists and others all get involved in schools to create a tangled morass, answerable to everyone in theory and thus no one in practice.

Accountability means that educators must be directly, promptly and reliably held responsible for results – especially student achievement and efficient use of resources. Administrators and teachers who achieve positive results should be employed, promoted, and awarded more compensation than lackluster performers. Those who perform poorly should receive fewer job offers, promotions, and increases in compensation; they should be terminated if performance is inadequate.

Accountability should be aligned with authority. Thus, it is typically counterproductive to allow anyone to exercise authority without accountability for results; to hold anyone accountable for an act or situation he lacks the authority to control; to indulge doubt on the part of anyone about the scope of authority or its alignment to consequences; or allow anyone to act outside of her authority without adverse consequences.

This is all good as far as it goes. But at bottom, the task of imposing effective accountability must begin by identifying the authority or constituency to whom a system must be accountable. To have an effective government pre-college education system, results ultimately must be benchmarked against the satisfaction expressed by the parents of the students enrolled in each relevant program. If a majority of those parents are dissatisfied with a particular board member or principal, that person must be removed. Subordinate administrators and teachers must be rigorously evaluated against benchmarks developed on a solely local basis to implement local parent preferences. Students must be assessed based upon criteria their parents endorse. This is the key point that so many would-be education reformers fail to recognize.

As Thomas Jefferson observed, parents should govern the school attended by their own children; management by general public officials of local, state or federal government is destined to fail. Parents have a much more focused interest in what happens to their own children than the public (or public officials) at large. Parents have a customized sense about the individualized needs of their own children and the specialized concerns pertaining to youth in their local communities. Parents can act on this intense and nuanced perspective by influencing their school in a way that is much nimbler than the public at large. Parents are more apt than government officials to act in the best interests of their own children and wisely utilize resources allocated for the well-being of their children.

Public officials of generic jurisdiction, who are far removed from individual parents and students, typically answer to sectors of the public – including numerous special interests – whose motivations directly contradict the best interests of families and students. Special interests have much more interaction with public officials of general jurisdiction than frustrated members of a government school’s captive audience do. Federal, state and local politicians simply point to each other and claim an inability to change the status quo.

Even for tax-subsidized government schools, accountability should be a market-based concept that seeks a natural equilibrium between what local parents demand and what the labor market of educators is willing to supply. Parental demand must define accountability for all schools – not merely the schools in worst crisis – because parental guidance is a principle of sound educational governance, not a punishment or indictment of professional educators. State universities already respond in some measure to market forces, one reason why American higher education is well-regarded compared with K-12.

Of course, neither parents nor students are unfailingly reasonable. But market equilibrium holds them accountable as well. If a particular school becomes known for inadequate sal¬aries, misguided parents or overindulged students, that school will be gradually punished by the labor market and the job market. Skilled educators will refuse to affiliate until parents and students accept conditions required for improvement. Like winning football coaches, successful K-12 administrators and teachers will be able to demand compensation and conditions commensurate with their added value.

Parents of students should dictate the standards governing how their own local schools are operated. Note, however, that public officials of general jurisdiction should determine (and be accountable to the general public in relation to) the amount of general tax revenue allocated to subsidies of government schools and students. Taxpayers should determine the generic amount of tax revenue allocated by formula to the local government schools. Parents of students should determine how their local school should utilize its share of such funding, subject to state auditing to ensure compliance with general principles of accounting.

Transparency is essential to accountability. Fiduciaries cannot be held answerable if Utahns are unable to scrutinize public operations. Government-school budgets, contracts, salaries, lesson plans, policies, calendars, activities, documents and the like should be available on the Internet for public and parental review. Penalties should be assessed for schools, teachers and administrators who fail to provide timely and accurate information. Obviously, there are some exceptions. For example, a student’s personal contact information, emergency medical information and grades, although contained in government-school records, would typically be inappropriate for public access.

Any institution that does not subject itself to an effective, incremental, proactive, internal system of accountability will eventually be subjected to blunt, seismic, reactive, external corrective events. External correction is typically imposed by economic competition, demographic change, dramatic political change, natural forces or a military enemy. Proactive accountability is a beneficent concept, because long-term institutional survival relies upon a valid mechanism for organizational stimulus and response. Government schools cannot function without a tax base.

Utah’s schools are being weighed in the balance by an international economy and sobering modern challenges. Grades will be issued, welcome or not.

The author, Daniel E. Witte, J.D., is director of Sutherland Institute’s Center for Educational Progress. Mr. Witte has an extensive background in issues related to parental liberty, educational choice and organizational reform. He has worked with the Utah Supreme Court, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Utah, the 10th and 7th Federal Circuit Courts of Appeal, the U.S. Senate, and law firms in Korea, Puerto Rico and California. Mr. Witte currently practices with a large law firm, specializing in commercial litigation, commercial transactions and insurance law.

 

2. Closed for the Holidays

Sutherland offices will be closed Dec. 24-Jan. 2. Have a Merry Christmas and look for our next newsletter in the New Year!

 

3. Understanding Utah’s Constitution: Date Changed

The date of our next Responsible Citizen Course has been changed. On Thursday, Jan. 20, at 7 p.m., Sutherland will host a repeat of the course:

“Articles, Amendments, and Aspirin: Understanding Utah’s Constitution (Without Getting a Headache)”

Constitutional expert William C. Duncan will present an introduction to the Utah Constitution and a discussion of the history and little-known facts surrounding it. Come learn how this 115-year-old document continues to shape Utah’s political landscape.

This class will be held at Sutherland’s headquarters, 307 W. 200 South, Suite 5005, Salt Lake City. (For a map, click here.) The fee is $10 for the public but is waived for those who join the Responsible Citizen Exchange.

To register, please contact Keven Stratton at 801-355-1272 or by email atRCE@sutherlandinstitute.org.

 

4. UEA Official: Disband Education Committee

“I recognize the efforts that the board is making to insert itself into the position that I think it rightfully deserves, in terms of dealing with the policy decisions related to education. Frankly, if I were king for the day, I think we should do away with the education committee in the Legislature and just keep it as the education appropriations committee, and those policy decisions that are important to education be handled here at the board level as the Constitution prescribes.”

Said by Kory Holdaway, director of government relations and political action for the Utah Education Association, during the public participation and comment portion of the State Board of Education meeting on Dec. 3, 2010.