Occasionally when my wife and I lay out rules for my daughter, she will respond with rules for us. While we are certainly receptive to hearing her perspective, in our house, the parents have a monopoly on rule-making power. Monopolies are great for monopolists. Most people have a boss. Business owners may not have a supervisor, but they answer to customers. But a monopolist? When was the last time you tried to get a straight answer from a cable company, a trash collector, or an electricity provider? I’d imagine it was not a painless experience. They know they have you by the short hairs.

Public schools are – near as makes no difference – monopolists. People with the time to homeschool or the resources to pay twice for their kids to be educated once are in short supply, and even among those who could afford it, few are willing. So public schools are the default option for most families. The only way to get a monopolist to stop acting like a monopolist is to introduce meaningful competition to his industry and geographic area.

Accountability measures can certainly change behavior to a degree. Early on, when only math and English were tested, teachers of other core subjects began clamoring for their own testing. Their observation was that any new money was spent on tested subjects. But overall, testing has not improved student learning, it has merely shifted that learning to learning the tests.

Real accountability comes from knowing that parents have a meaningful choice. Open transfer is a decent starting point, but the fact is one has to travel a long way to get from a terrible public school to a great public school. Real accountability comes from knowing that if parents are not satisfied, they might actually go to another school. Private schools have built in accountability: there is always a public alternative, and often more than one private alternative.

Public school testing and accountability measures represent a second-best option: since most parents really have no choice, at least testing gives them some hard numbers with which to berate a failing school administration. This does have some impact. After all, school administrators want to have a copasetic day. But this pressure is nothing like the pressure that comes with meaningful alternatives. A school — public or private — that fails to live up to affordable competition will quickly see its formula funding dry up, as its students flock to the competition. This would not only get the kids leaving into a better school, it would also incentivize the public school to improve its performance.

This is where proposals like universal Educational Saving Accounts come in. While having ESAs for disadvantaged students, or those zoned for failing schools is a good start, what Oklahoma really needs is accountability through choice. HB2673, currently pending in the House does allow open transfer between public districts, and pays for students at failing schools to attend private schools. This is a great step forward, giving kids a lifeline out of the worst public schools. But it fails to address the other big argument in favor of school choice.

There is another measure where testing utterly fails that meaningful school choice almost entirely solves: the diverging ideologies of parents and school districts. Parents understandably want schools that share their values. If that’s too much to ask, parents hope that their children’s school at least does not undermine those values. But we don’t test public school ideology, at least not openly. In recent months it seems to be a one-way ratchet towards woke ideology, even when that means leaving academics by the wayside.

Real school choice would give parents a substantial voice in what their kids are being taught. Until then, the monopolists will continue to do what monopolists do: just good enough to get by. Is that good enough for our kids? 

Mike Davis is a Research Fellow at 1889 Institute. He can be reached at mdavis@1889institute.org.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.