The Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) bond measures recently passed overwhelmingly, despite a slew of scandals and payouts leading to concerns from district leaders that voters might use the bond election to punish the district. With a total of $575 million at stake, this was not a trivial concern.
An outpouring of opinion pieces and editorials from community leaders urged voters to put their concerns about the district and its management aside and support the bonds “for the children.” This was seemingly effective, as turnout was nearly double what it normally is for similar elections (still low at 7 percent, but much bigger than normal).
There is no doubt that a rejection would have gotten APS’s attention. It was a blunt instrument indeed, but it would have generated a swift reaction from district leaders.
Since the blunt instrument was rejected by voters, what means do voters have of keeping APS accountable? Locally, it pretty much boils down to electing the “right” people to the school board. Since the main job of the school board is to hire a district superintendent who ultimately oversees the schools, this is another weak and indirect method of accountability.
The situation at the state level is not much better. We elect a governor and legislators based on dozens of issues (and personality traits), with their stances on education among them. The governor then hires a secretary of education who is in charge of implementing that governor’s education policies. This process is yet another indirect and slow means of holding our education system accountable. What if I like Gov. Martinez’s policies on taxes and the economy, but don’t like what Department of Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera is doing? Or, I might strongly dislike the governor, but appreciate what Skandera is doing. How do average people communicate their concerns to these people?
This is not limited to the current administration. Accountability, specifically its absence, is endemic to government educational systems.
If businesses think accountability in education is a trivial matter, they need look no further than New Mexico’s worst-in-the-nation graduation rate, constant discussion of our “workforce preparedness/quality,” and the tremendous growth in education spending in recent decades.
An intermediate step toward improved accountability is school choice. Ironically, the week immediately prior to the APS bond election was celebrated as “National School Choice Week.” New Mexico has some choice, most notably charter schools. I’m on the board of a charter school and support them, but the approval or rejection of a school’s charter (a legal document granting from a charter-granting authority) is yet another blunt tool for reformers.
Other forms of school choice offer greater potential for success. These include: vouchers and tax credits, as well as education savings accounts, which were recently enacted in Nevada. These options – particularly tax credits in recent years – have been discussed in New Mexico’s legislature. In terms of accountability, they would be a huge improvement. If these schools don’t perform at a level that makes them significantly better than traditional public schools, those schools will go out of business. On the other hand, if more parents demand a particular choice than are available, someone will attempt to expand the supply of similar options.
That’s real, direct accountability – the kind that comes from the free market. Competition quickly allowed consumers to embrace, and then reject, Blackberry devices, while iPhones and Androids made (and continue to make) rapid advances and continually innovate in order to win greater market share.
Unfortunately, that is a level of accountability that is beyond the wildest dreams of even ambitious education reformers today. School choice is the best available option and New Mexico policymakers need to get on board with it now if our state is ever going to get out of last place both educationally and economically.