The Accountability Myth: Remarks on the Report

In mid-2021, a national education organization, EdChoice, published a report about the lack of accountability for traditional public schools. EdChoice National Research Director Michael McShane, Ph.D., argues that traditional public schools are unaccountable in three major ways: financially, democratically, and academically. Alaskans will find McShane’s observations familiar and should take them into account when managing and reforming education in the Last Frontier:

  • “Traditional public schools are not financially accountable to taxpayers… When it comes to ‘financial accountability,’ public schools have been disastrously opaque, failing to disclose how dollars are actually spent and whether they are used to educate students. Opacity is a great tool for schools and districts: If no one can see where the money goes, it’s easy to convince the community that there just isn’t enough money.”
  • “Traditional public schools are not democratically accountable to citizens… ‘Democratic accountability’ relies on school board elections, which are problematic. School board elections are held off-cycle to drive down turnout. Bond elections use unclear language to muddy what they are actually asking of taxpayers. And the wishes of organized interests routinely supersede those of the body politic.”
  • “Traditional public schools are not academically accountable to students, parents, or anyone else for that matter… In practice, ‘academic accountability’ in K–12 education means schools are required to jump through the hoops set up by state and federal bureaucrats that are loosely related to demonstrating that students have actually learned anything. They are required to fill out paperwork and track down metrics and send them to the appropriate person at the appropriate office by the appropriate date, but ultimately not much happens after that.”

Traditional public schools are not financially accountable to taxpayers.

Answering the central financial question of education is quite complicated: How much money does your local public school spend educating the children in its charge? Firstly, Alaska’s funding formula is not a straightforward equation. Secondly, what counts as per student spending is not consistent. As McShane writes:

Are we just talking about “current” spending, the operating expenses that a school pays every year? Do we include capital costs and debt service? How do we think about long-term obligations like contributions to teacher pensions? How do we depreciate assets like school buses? Do we do it over five years like some states do or 20 years like others? Different sources include different combinations of expenses when identifying how much a school spends.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Alaska spent an average of $18,394 per student as of 2019. That number includes salaries and benefits for teachers, school administration costs, transportation, child food services, capital costs, debt payments, and pupil support costs. Another resource, however, Georgetown University and McCourt School of Public Policy’s Edunomics Lab, compiles data reported by each district directly to the state of Alaska and shows the average cost per pupil in 2019 as $20,907. Both sources use expenditure data from the districts, but they have quite different numbers.

Moving on from these discrepancies, how much of the money spent is directly benefitting the students? Alaskans can find further breakdowns of per-student expenditures at the school level on the Department of Education and Early Development’s (DEED) Report Card to the Public or on Project Nickel. The problem, as EdChoice explains, is that:

…schools, districts, and states [including Alaska] are incentivized to classify their funding in ways that avoid public scrutiny. By shunting expenses into spending categories that don’t “count” towards per pupil expenditure calculations, they are able to artificially diminish the spending figures that are reported to the public. When that happens, school board members and, more importantly, voters do not get the full picture when evaluating how the school is performing. If you think a school is spending 75 or 80 percent of what it is actually spending, you might be more impressed with its performance than if you had the full picture.

Lastly, districts across the state have received millions of dollars in federal funding from the three coronavirus relief bills. As reports from APF have pointed out, thousands of dollars per student have been and are being used to purchase things and hire people, and currently districts are not showing whether any return has been realized on this investment. Some expenditures have not even been related to the pandemic. Worse, McShane worries that these monies may “become part of the baseline of school spending, showing massive ‘cuts’ when the money runs out.”

“We cannot hold schools accountable for their spending,” he writes, “if we don’t know what they spend. And we don’t know what they spend.”

Traditional public schools are not democratically accountable to citizens.

The EdChoice report explains this point clearly:

If trying to answer the question “how much does my local school spend” was too tough, how about a couple of easier ones. Can you name the President of the United States? How about your governor? The mayor of your town? OK, now for the hard one, can you name anyone on your local school board?

Local school boards are, according to the mythology that has grown up around them, small-d democratic institutions that answer to the community and ensure that schools reflect the values and protect the interests of the local body politic. Whereas some reformers have wanted to hold schools “accountable” based on things like test scores or other metrics, school boards are supposed to hold schools accountable the good old-fashioned way, through elections. If schools are not doing what citizens want, they elect a new school board. That school board then oversees the schools, stewarding local tax dollars, hiring and firing key staff, drafting policies, adopting curricula, and approving schedules and calendars.

If you cannot name anyone on your local school board, you are not alone. And that fact — that most people don’t know who is on the school board, what the school board does, or even when to vote for school board members — is the best evidence that traditional public schools are not accountable to citizens.

School boards are opaque institutions because people do not show up to vote in school board elections. They are often held “off-cycle,” that is, on a different date than elections traditionally take place. While almost everyone knows that Election Day is a Tuesday in early November, school board elections are… held… at random times throughout the year. While the President, congresspeople, city councilors, and all the other elected officials in a state or city are elected on the same day, school board members frequently are not.

For example, the school board in Anchorage runs the largest school district in the state and controls a budget of over $570 million. The board is made up of seven members, who each serve rotating three-year terms and represent the entire Anchorage voter base. Municipal representatives, on the other hand, represent districts within the city. At least two of the seven seats are up for election every year. In 2022, two seats were up for general election on April 5. In 2021, four seats were up for general election on April 6. Noticeably, the elections were not held on Election Day in November, when the most people vote.

By moving elections off-cycle, civic leaders have given power over to special interest groups such as local teachers’ unions because, rest assured, those groups ensure their members know when the off-cycle elections are happening. Writes McShane:

When turnout in elections is low, organized interest groups have a huge leg up. By simply getting their members out to vote, they have already secured a large bloc in the electorate. They only need to organize a few more people and they have enough to win the election. Once they have won, they have functionally elected their own bosses. The school board will be the ones who negotiate the teachers’ contract and set their salaries. They will hire the superintendent who is supposed to be the teachers’ manager. They will sit on both sides of the negotiating table.

…Organized interest groups have outsized power in the decision-making processes of school districts. Teacher and administrator unions are able to call the shots to a degree that average citizens simply are not. As a result, simple, commonsense reforms that very few people outside of those interest groups disagree with do not happen, and schools are not democratically accountable to the citizenry.”

Traditional public schools are not academically accountable to students, parents, or anyone else for that matter.

The last hope for accountability, when taxpayers and voters have no ability to impose it, falls to the direct consumers of school services: students and parents. Yet, here McShane’s observations once again present a discouraging picture:

What happens to a public school that receives consistently low standardized test scores? Does it lose funding? Does it get shut down? …While states have created elaborate ‘accountability’ systems for schools, and at times even for teachers, very few schools in practice ever actually receive any substantive penalties for low performance. School funding is not tied to test scores. Schools can underperform for decades and suffer functionally zero consequences….

Let’s walk through what a typical state accountability system looks like. The best source for how a state’s accountability system works is the documentation it sends to the federal government to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). That piece of federal legislation requires states to administer school and district accountability systems but gives substantial flexibility in how states do so. States do, however, have to submit their accountability plan to the federal Department of Education for approval and must, at least in theory, create school performance report cards.

Alaska’s plan includes the establishment of long-term goals for students and details how Alaska identifies low-performing schools and intervenes when necessary. The Alaska DEED identifies low-performing schools using five indicators, and schools receive points from zero to 100 for each:

  • The Academic Achievement. This score is equal to the percentage of students scoring at the proficient or advanced achievement levels on the statewide assessments in English language arts (ELA) and mathematics.
  • Academic Growth. For grades 4 through 9, progress toward proficiency in ELA and mathematics is considered, although DEED has administered three different statewide assessments between 2016 and 2022, which makes it difficult to compare growth over years.
  • Graduation Rate. For high schools, the graduation rate is included.
  • English Learner Progress. For all schools, the percentage of English language learners who either are deemed proficient in English or meet growth targets toward proficiency is calculated using complicated DEED formulas.
  • General School Quality or Student Success. This indicator is calculated using schools’ chronic absenteeism and grade 3 ELA proficiency.

Each of the subgroup scores is calculated based on formulae enumerated in the document and then rolled up into a single score for each school and district. For elementary schools, academic achievement in ELA and mathematics are both worth 15% of the total score; academic growth for both subjects is worth 20%; English-learner progress is worth 15%; the absenteeism score is worth 10%; and the grade 3 ELA proficiency sub-score is worth 5%.

The calculation is even more complicated for schools that serve seventh grade and up. For schools that do not have a 12th grade: academic achievement in ELA and mathematics are both worth 15% of the total score; academic growth for both subjects is 20%; the four-year graduation rate is 15%; the five-year graduation rate is 5%; English-learner progress is 10%; and the absenteeism score is worth 10%. For schools that do serve 12th graders: academic achievement in ELA and mathematics are both worth 30% of the total score; academic growth is not calculated; the four-year graduation rate is 15%; the five-year graduation rate is 5%; English-learner progress is 10%; and the absenteeism score is worth 10%.

Those scores are then weighted further and combined if a school serves K–12.

Even Alaskans’ whose heads don’t hurt by the strange and complicated rules probably have little idea what the final scores truly mean. The accountability seems just as meaningless: The state pledges to intervene in the schools with the lowest scores for at least three years and with high schools that have four-year adjusted graduation rates below 66.66%. According to DEED’s plan, such schools “are held accountable to a rigorous improvement process, supported by district and State resources and support, with reporting of results to stakeholders.” What does any of this mean in terms of action and outcome?

If after three years — really six years, including the three that pass before qualifying for intervention — schools do not improve their performance, the state can step in more forcefully, providing evaluations and performing resource allocation audits, as well as helping to write new strategic plans, assigning School Improvement Coaches, providing training or technical assistance, replacing teachers and principals, or taking over governance of the schools or entire districts. Why the state government that developed the system would be any more competent to implement the practice is another question.

EdChoice gives reason to fear that the state’s solution may simply be to change the rules, because the metrics provided by DEED are arbitrary. In fact, “those designing and implementing the system will always be able to change the weights or metrics to shape the outcome if they don’t like what they see. If too many schools are identified as low-performing, they can give more weight to the easier categories.”

Such cheating may actually be preferable to alternatives, which McShane calls “jiggery pokery.” He writes, “[W]eighting high school graduation rates, which might be the single easiest metric to game in all of education, so high for high school scores pushes schools to hand out caps and gowns and push kids across the stage. Allowing the use of measurements like ‘growth to proficiency’ allows schools to look like they are demonstrating student growth” without truly demonstrating schools’ impact. “In all of these cases, schools and districts are gaming the metrics… preventing them from actually being held accountable.”

In practice, “academic accountability” in K–12 education means schools are required to jump through the hoops set up by state and federal bureaucrats that are loosely related to demonstrating that students have actually learned anything. They are required to fill out paperwork and track down metrics and send them to the appropriate person at the appropriate office by the appropriate date, but ultimately not much happens after that.

Solution

After articulating his three arguments, McShane writes:

So organized interest groups elect their bosses who water down any measurement of their work and pocket the money that people don’t realize they are spending… This all matters to the broader conversation about what families and communities get out of the K–12 system in which they are investing. A purported lack of accountability is a common reason cited to oppose school choice programs. While the typical (and… correct) response is to argue that schools of choice are held accountable by parents, it is also important to challenge the premise that public schools are actually accountable. …

Perhaps a different regime is in order. By empowering families to choose where their children attend school, we could deputize millions of parents as school accountability officers.

By allowing more families to choose the schools that their children attend, Alaska could ensure democratic accountability, academic accountability, and financial accountability in its education system. Schools would be more democratically accountable because institutions that serve families would grow and those that don’t would not. Schools would be more academically accountable because parents could see what and how their children are learninand select schools that, in McShane’s words, “provide a quality education (defined by what characteristics and metrics they feel are most important) and leav[e] schools that aren’t.”

Finally, allowing families to choose the schools that best fit the needs of their children would hold educational institutions more financially accountable via “programs that put student school funding into flexible-use spending accounts that families control and can spend across a host of academic providers. Unlike traditional public schools,” writes McShane, “they have strong incentives to care about cost, as the more cost conscious they are, the more they can purchase with their… funding. They can make the tradeoffs between cost and quality with better information and a stronger motivation than someone not intimately involved in the decision making.” Alaska has already taken steps in this direction, but the state’s efforts could be stronger and more deliberate.

More specifically, Alaska should support alternative educational models and allow funding to follow the students, not the schools. For some families, a traditional public school will still be the best fit, and that’s great! But for many families, traditional public schools are not able to meet the educational needs of their children. At the end of the day, Alaska should be supporting quality education for all our children, not administrators’ and union bosses’ bank