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Hold voucher schools to account

Suppose you were told that a new automobile insurance company in town offered better rates and better service. All other things being equal, would you pursue the matter further?

Of course you would.

Now what if this new insurance company failed to reveal the extent to which you were covered in an accident or natural disaster, or to provide any information on the quality of its service? Would you hesitate before purchasing a policy with this company?

Almost certainly.

While the salesman seeks to convince you that his policy has added value, you are uncertain about what to do. The price seems right and the product sounds good on the surface, but you have serious reservations about his failure to be forthcoming in answering your questions.

This situation mirrors precisely what is happening in Florida and in many other states that are offering school vouchers to parents.

Vouchers have become a fundamental part of the school choice movement. They offer public funds to parents so that students can attend private schools. Often, but not always, student qualification for a voucher requires that the student previously attended a failing or subpar public school. And, on occasion, a student must meet certain family income requirements to qualify.

We have written in support of parental choice in schools previously and continue to believe that charter schools provide healthy competition for public schools and can be a viable option for many parents and students.

But there is something basically wrong when public funds are earmarked for these private schools and the state fails to insist on accountability measures for student achievement outcomes.

How can we be sure that these schools actually deliver on what they promise without such data? How will we know if these private schools are adding educational value when no comparable assessment is provided?

The answer is we cannot.

So why are policymakers reluctant to insist on the same standards for private schools accepting vouchers that they require of public schools?

Those supporting vouchers contend that government should not be monitoring private schools and telling them what to do. Normally that might be true, but when these schools are receiving public funds that would normally go to public schools, the public has every right to know how well those children are doing in comparison with their classmates in public schools.

If we allow a student cohort to continue through private schools on vouchers and then find out 20 years from now that they were much less prepared to enter the private and public sectors, we will have spawned a disaster for these students and our society.

Like the person shopping for a better insurance policy, we cannot afford a system that does worse than the current one. The only way to ensure that this will not happen is to mandate transparency — a system that insists on the same accountability standards for all schools that use public funds.

To do otherwise is to court disaster and face the consequences down the road, when there will be no opportunity to turn back.

David R. Colburn is director of the Askew Institute at the University of Florida and can be reached at Brian Dassler is chief academic officer, New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, a public school serving students from across Louisiana. They wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Hold voucher schools to account 10/15/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 17, 2012 10:33am]
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